Roots and Shoots: Plant Shopping

Car full of plants

Buy wisely whether at the garden center or one of the upcoming plant sales. (Photo by P. Doan)

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This morning I remembered to check the moisture on the wrapping of my newly acquired red-oak seedlings (10). Then I realized it hasn’t rained recently and I should start watering the chokeberries (10), pussy willow (1), sweet pepperbush (2), swamp rose (8), raspberries (4) and, wait — what am I forgetting? All of these are from 2021 plant shopping and are waiting in containers on my patio for their forever homes in the yard. 

It’s easy to buy plants. There isn’t any licensing, education or other credentials. You can even grow your own. Keeping them alive is another project and I hope the list below will help you make good investments with your money, time and energy. 

Read the tag

It sounds silly, but it’s easy to only focus on a lovely flower. The tag has all the growing conditions and a description. Note the height and width at maturity; visualize the plant in your yard and how that will work. If a woody plant that is 3 feet tall when you bring it home will become 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide, make sure you have the space it needs without interfering with power lines, other trees and buildings. 

Note the Latin name. If you’re seeking a specific species, make sure that the Latin names match, since common names vary. 

Note the sun requirements for the plant. Does your yard offer those conditions? If you’re not sure, check again before you make a purchase. A plant with too much or too little sun for its needs will not thrive. 

Not sure about the plant? Ask questions. People who work around plants usually enjoy talking about them. 

Root check

If you can remove the plant or tree from its container and view the roots, do it, especially with trees. Notice the tree or woody plant’s root flare. It should be above the soil level, not buried, and the main root should be intact with a loose root system. 

When the roots of the tree or plant circle around each other and hold the shape of the container, the condition is called pot-bound or root-bound. If you placed it in the soil without correction, it would stay in that shape and the roots wouldn’t spread out. It won’t grow. 

I have a trowel with a serrated edge that works perfectly to cut circular roots. I swipe lightly with downward strokes and free the roots to move out in the hole. Even when plants aren’t obviously root bound, I always massage the roots, shake off soil, and make it as bare-root as possible before placement. 

Tree roots take more finessing and knowledge. I’ve learned a lot about preparing tree roots from the blog at gardenprofessors.com. I can’t cover everything here so I recommend that resource. 

Green or not so green 

Be on the lookout for leaves that are withered, spotted, misshapen or discolored. This could be evidence of too much or too little water, a pathogen or a nutrient imbalance. 

Judge the plant by its cycle  

It helps to understand the growth cycle of the plant, too. Many native perennials grown in containers won’t show up in May looking chipper. Warm-season grasses, such as little blue stem, have barely begun growing but will look amazing in August. The popular orange milkweed, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), will also be insignificant looking. 

We’re conditioned as shoppers to expect that “healthy plants” look like annuals, which are only meant to survive a single season. They are frequently in bloom in the garden center and already at maturity. 

A first-year butterfly weed plant will be smaller than it will be in the second year of growth and may not bloom. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad purchase, it just has a different cycle. You can’t compare the two. Yet we do, and that’s a reason that native perennials can be less appealing. 

Dump the soil? 

Commercial nurseries have a strong self-interest in keeping their stock free of invasive species, including jumping worms. Volunteer plant sales may or may not have protocols to prevent the spread of plants like stiltgrass inadvertently. As a strong supporter of volunteer plant sales, I am pretty sure I brought home mugwort: it showed up in the flowerbed. 

A good practice is to get as much of the soil off the roots as you can before planting. Put down newspaper to contain it, then throw it away. I’m not a fan of putting planting soil in the trash but I’m less fond of a new battle with an ecological threat. 

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