Buy plants – quick guide to the basics

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Last updated August 2014

Avoid coming home with a dud – read our tips:
Guide to buying garden plants – a quick read
What plants are on sale?
Value for money – which plants
Check for pests and diseases before accepting plants
What to look for when buying plants
What to avoid when buying plants
How to treat plant purchases

Guide to buying garden plants – a quick read

You don’t need to be an expert to select a good garden plant. Just give yourself enough time to choose carefully, so that you buy exactly what you want, not what someone wants to sell to you. If you’ve set your heart on a particular plant, avoid accepting a substitute unless you’re sure that it will be suitable. Also have a reference book handy (eg from Foyles or Waterstones) to check up on the needs and characteristics of particular plants. Then you won’t end up with a plant that will die or outgrow its allotted space.

Beware of vague staff and vague labelling. Ask the staff for the correct name of a poorly labelled plant – and don’t tell them which one you want, otherwise the plant may well miraculously become that very one.

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What plants are on sale?

Plants on sale have either been grown in a field or in a container. Some plants, such as roses, which are grown in the ground and then dug up for sale, are referred to as bare-rooted. Deciduous woody plants have the best chance of survival when dug up once the leaves have fallen – so if you want to be sure of getting what you want, you have to order in advance, then wait until winter for delivery. You should be careful to protect these bare roots from drying conditions of wind, sun or heat – keep them well wrapped – and plant them while still in the dormant stage

Evergreen shrubs and trees that are field grown are vulnerable throughout the year, so when dug up, they are root-balled (ie the root system and soil are wrapped up in hessian sacking)to protect the whole plant from drying conditions because the roots cannot replace lost moisture. The sacking need not be removed at planting because the roots can penetrate it and it will rot eventually, but you should cut through/undo the knots around the trunk.

Containerised plants are more expensive than bare-rooted plants but more convenient because they are on sale all year round, and can be planted at any time (except when the ground is waterlogged or frozen).

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Value for money – which plants?

Sometimes small plants give greater value than larger, more expensive versions, because they are less shocked by transplanting than larger specimens. These smaller specimens establish much more quickly and continue to grow strongly, unlike larger plants, which often sulk for several years. On the other hand, one large herbaceous or ground-cover plant offers better value than several smaller ones because a large plant can be split up and the divisions planted out over a larger area, giving you more for your money.

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Check for pests and diseases before accepting plants

Never bring diseased or pest-ridden plants into your garden, because the problems may spread and become very difficult to control. Carefully inspect plants before buying them, and be wary of gifts of surplus plants from friends’ and neighbours’ gardens. If you’re a vegetable grower, be on the lookout in particular for distorted, lumpy roots on any plants (flowering or veggie) in the cabbage (Cruciferae) family. This could be clubroot, and once this root disease gets into the soil you will not be able to get rid of it. Nor will you be able to grow many cruciferous vegetables or flowering plants successfully – although there are some resistant types available.

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What to look for when buying plants

  • A detailed label with a full botanical (often Latin) and variety name attached firmly to the pot or plant, so that there’s no chance of the label having been accidentally swapped.
  • Choose a plant that is healthy and undamaged. Look on the underside of the leaves for lurking insects and fungal growth.
  • Choose well cared-for plants with weed-free compost that is neither bone-dry nor waterlogged.
  • Plant shape. Where pots are crammed together, pull each pot out into the open to study it. Look for a balanced shape to the plant, with plenty of growth low down where appropriate, and flourishing foliage. Choose flowering plants with their blooms open so you can check the colour if its critical.

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What to avoid when buying plants

  • Plants with sickly or spotted leaves, or wilted stems. Check that the bark of woody plants hasn’t been rubbed or scraped, and that branches haven’t been broken.
  • Pot-bound plants with roots emerging from the pot’s drainage holes. Also avoid those with roots curled around the space between the compost and the inside of the pot. You can check this by tapping the base of the pot on the ground and then sliding the plant out of its container.
  • Plants that have just been transferred to larger pots. These shouldn’t be on sale until the roots have become established. Check by picking up the plant at the base of its stem. If the plant pulls out of the compost, it’s on sale too soon.
  • Outdoor plants being grown under cover. Be wary of buying plants on sale under cover (because the temperatures rise rapidly here) and of plants that are in flower when the same plants growing outdoors in gardens are not. These plants will suffer once planted outside in low temperatures and cold winds unless you acclimatise them (harden them off) slowly.

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How to treat plant purchases

Indoor plants:

Position, water and feed according to the information from the supplier or the label, or a good reference book (eg a house/indoor/conservatory plant book from Foyles or Waterstones)

Outdoor plants:

The supplier or label should give some information, but again, a good reference book is invaluable (eg tree/shrub books from Foyles or Waterstones; garden flower books from Foyles or Waterstones).

  • Harden them off by gradually introducing them to outdoor temperatures in the day, bringing in at night, then leaving out during mild nights, and planting once the frosts have finished.
  • Thoroughly soak the plants the night before planting out to give them a good start. Also fill the planting hole with water and allow it to drain away before planting to ensure establishment if a dry spell occurs. Then there is no need to water, unless there is a prolonged drought.

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