There is so much more to plant shopping than you think! While those department store veggie starts may look herculean compared to humble home-grown seedlings, looks can be absolutely deceiving. Read on for my best tips on how to shop for nursery-grown plant starts.
Look For Signs of Stress
Your first indicators of a seedling that’s best left for the bargain bin are obvious signs of stress. These can include wilt, discoloration, legginess, dry or cracked soil, or dropped leaves. Many of these signs are related to poor watering, fertilizing, and accommodations – many nurseries send out seedlings in prime condition, but by the time they make it to the garden center in your area they can be outgrowing their pot and in desperate need of some attention. For best results try to find the perkiest, greenest looking one of the bunch, and not necessarily the largest! We’ll talk specifically about size in a moment.
While it may be intriguing to see flowers on seedlings they’re the last thing you want on a plant before you take it home. A seedling that is setting flowers usually means it’s reached a point in its lifespan that any further growth will be stunted, because something has signaled the poor little thing to be fruitful and multiply! This can mean it’s outgrown its container, has not been getting enough water or nutrients, or has come in and out of dormancy too many times. If you must take home a plant that has begun flowering (or even worse, fruiting) go ahead and pinch those babies off until it’s planted in its permanent location and has some time to settle in.
Check on Root Development
I promise you won’t get yelled at by the clerk if you check a plant’s roots before putting it in your basket! Go ahead and pop that sucker out of the cup and check out the root situation underneath. If you see a lot of spiraling or “balling” of the roots, pass on that one. More root problems can be indicated by dryness, discoloration, or even mold and mush. Healthy roots will be relatively straight, firm and light colored.
Be Mindful of Size
While you may be tempted to go for the tomato that towers above the rest, be careful! Don’t spend a cent of your precious garden budget on a seedling that won’t get any bigger once you plant it out. When shopping for starts younger is usually better and while this may surprise you it’ll soon be evident in the garden. Seedlings that have outgrown their environment will be quickly surpassed by their more petite companions for the simple reason that they peaked too soon. If you see a larger plant that isn’t suffering from any of other the signs above, lucky you! However, I’m willing to bet that gargantuan plant is root-bound as can be, already flowering, in need of a fertilizing and won’t see much success no matter how well you care for it after you bring it home.
Beware Pests or Disease
While this is uncommon for nursery-grown plants it’s not unheard of. If you see any kind of pest damage like holes or chewing, beware! You wouldn’t want to bring that pest home and introduce it to your own garden plot. For the same reason you should be on the lookout for any kind of black, brown or white spots, or a powdery residue on the leaves or soil. These are good indicators that there is disease present in the nursery and that you probably shouldn’t spend your money there. You may even want to notify an employee if you see something suspicious – there’s a chance they may not know yet that there’s a problem.
Strive to Shop Local
Last but definitely not least (this may be the most important item on the list!) please do your best to support local businesses and keep your hard earned money in your community. There are many hometown nurseries to visit in your area and they will be forever grateful for your patronage. Their plants are often started from seed right there on the property and you can ask for specialized advice, which they are often more than happy to share. This will translate directly to your garden through healthier plants and better production! The benefits from shopping small for your seedlings are endless, so do your part to stimulate the local economy and visit a small farm or greenhouse for your gardening needs this season!
I frequently buy herbs like rosemary, sage, and lavender from my local nursery because they’re hard to germinate and will do much better in my climate as started plants. However, if you haven’t tried your hand at seed starting, I highly encourage you to take the leap. You can read my Home Gardener’s Guide to Seed Starting for more information.
What are the veggies that you just can’t live without? Let me know what you pick up from the nursery in the comments below!