What to look for when buying plants online and in-store
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Whether you’re flipping through gardening catalogs, browsing online plant stores, or just walking slowly through the Home Depot garden section, one thing is clear: There are thousands of choices to make about what to plant in your yard, containers, or window sill.
Here’s how to shop for the healthiest plants that will thrive in your home and your yard.
Understand your living space and shop accordingly
You may want to live in a rose-covered cottage, but maybe your apartment doesn’t have a yard, and your north-facing deck only gets four hours of sunlight a day. You could order a rose bush and plant it in a container, but it won’t survive, much less bloom.
Before you buy any seeds, bulbs, or plants, take a good, hard look at where you’re going to be planting. Most garden web sites and catalog let you filter plants by growing conditions.
Sun, shade, and part-shade ratings
Plants can suffer when they get too little or too much light. The definitions of full sun and full shade are pretty straightforward; if your spot gets six hours or more of unobstructed sunlight, you have full sun. If your site gets less than an hour of direct sun every day, that’s full shade.
“Part shade” and “part sun” are a little trickier. These categories usually refer to sites that get two to four hours of direct sunlight during the day. When you get the sun matters, though. Some plants, like flowering clematis vines, do best with full sunlight in the morning when it’s cool, but prefer shade on hot afternoons.
In general, if you plant a full-sun plant in part shade, it won’t grow well. The plant will be stunted, the leaves will be pale, and the plant will be more vulnerable to disease. If you grow a shade plant in part sun, the leaves may get “scorched,” they’ll lose their color and may become curled, browned, and dried.
The University of Maryland Extension lists of green and flowering plants by how much light they’ll get from the window they’ll be living in, and the University of Minnesota has an even longer list of houseplants by light needs, including pothos, ferns, geraniums, and dwarf citrus trees.
Some plants like it dry; some plants live in puddles. If you live in the desert, or you only remember to water your plants every other week, don’t opt for water-loving plants. And potted rosemary is notorious for being tricky to water correctly on any schedule.
Houseplants with thick, waxy, leaves like philodendrons are adapted to low-water conditions, while plants with finer, lusher leaves like cyclamen need their soil kept moist. If you’re not sure if it’s time to water your plant, stick your finger in the soil. If it’s dry, water your plant! If it’s moist, hold off for another day or two.
Some houseplants (like potted rosemary) tend to brown and wilt in dry winter months. You can give your houseplants a humid boost by putting their pots on a tray filled with marbles or stones. Pour water into the tray and let it evaporate to give your plants the moist air they crave.
Don’t buy more plants than you can fit. Overplanting is a classic beginner’s gardening mistake. Little plants can grow into a sprawling mass of chaos, and poor air circulation between plants can encourage fungal diseases and powdery mildew. Your potted perennial geranium may only be a few inches across when you buy it, but it will grow to be two feet wide.
Sometimes, small is better. It’s counterintuitive, but younger plants will often grow more quickly after they’re transplanted into the ground than older plants, thanks to a syndrome called transplant shock; it’s especially common in trees and shrubs. Younger, smaller plants often adapt better to new conditions, and they’re cheaper too.
That said, larger plants stand up better to drought and weeds than smaller plants. If you’re short on time, a bigger plant that doesn’t need as much care as a small plant could be a better investment.
Time to spend maintaining them
Some plants, like tea roses and apple trees, are notoriously high-maintenance because they’re subject to so many diseases. If you aren’t planning to go out and check your plants for black spot or scab every day, choose disease-resistant varieties like Knock Out roses or Liberty apples, or a different plant altogether.
Even if you have a houseplant, you’re still going to need to clean up fallen leaves, repot or divide it as it grows, and water it—and if your cat or clumsy roommate falls on it, you’re going to have to clean up a bunch of dirt. Know what you’re getting into.
Special consideration for outdoor plants
“Hardiness” is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, “How cold does it get?” Hardiness zones are numbered 1-13 in the U.S., according to the lowest winter temperature in an area. Northern Minnesota is in Zone 2B, with a minimum temperature of -40°F to -45°F; southern Florida is in Zone 10B because the lowest temperature there is 35°F to 40°F, almost 100 degrees warmer than Minnesota.
You can find your local hardiness zone on this USDA map. If you want your plant to survive the winter, make sure that its hardiness zone is a number equal to or less than your zone. If you live in Virginia in Zone 7B, you can safely buy plants that survive in Zone 6, but a Zone 8 plant will shiver and keel over when you hit those January lows.
Annuals vs. perennials
Are you looking for a fast punch of color, or do you want to enjoy your new plants in the coming years?
Annuals are plants that grow, bloom, and die in one season. Petunias are annuals, and so are tomatoes, anywhere the winter temps go below freezing.
Perennials are plants that survive over to grow and bloom the next season. You may spend more on them up front, but they can survive for years, and when they get big, you can divide them to get a whole new plant! But they won’t survive if they freeze to death. Check the hardiness zone before you buy.
Resistance to pests
Rabbits and deer are cute and fuzzy—and they can eat through every single one of your new plants in one night. Look for “deer resistant” plants if you have furry friends in your yard, or consider building a garden fence or employing another tactic to keep pests away. If you’re thinking of growing fruit that attracts birds, like blueberries or cherries, invest in netting.
Where to buy plants
Now that you know your local conditions, it’s time to pick your plants. There are several great websites for finding plants that will thrive in your home and yard. Hardware stores like The Home Depot and Lowe’s have garden centers for online or in-store shopping. And there are a number of online plant shops to consider, like The Sill, which has a helpful houseplant finder for bright and low-light conditions.
The best time to buy plants
The wonderful thing about ordering brown-eyed Susans on Amazon is that you can get them in two days, but then what? Most new plants should be planted after the last frost date in your area. Aim to have your new plants in hand after the date where there’s 50% chance of last frost, and schedule time to get them in the ground as soon as possible.
What else do you need to buy, besides the plant?
When you’re shopping for plants, check to make sure you’re getting just what you want.
Is your plant getting shipped in a pot, or “bare root”? If it’s bare root, you will need to unpack it and put it into soil ASAP when you get it. Plants that arrive in pots with soil can wait a little longer to be planted. Always make sure you water your plants as soon as possible after they arrive.
Many gardeners are concerned about pesticides that kill bees and other insects that pollinate plants. Bees are particularly susceptible to a type of pesticides known as neonicotinoids or neonics. The Home Depot phased out neonics in 2018, but other growers are still using them. When in doubt, ask the seller if their plants have been treated with neonics before you buy.
Inspect plants before you commit to them
When you’re unpacking your mail-order plants, or picking them out at Home Depot or your local garden center, make sure they’re healthy before you put them in your garden.
How do the leaves look? Check the plant on all sides, and look at the undersides of the leaves as well as the tops. Some browning is natural if the plants dried out in transit, but responsible plant sellers pack their plants to stay moist throughout their journeys.
How does the plant look overall? If the plant look tall, thin, or “leggy,” it didn’t get enough light, and could mean there were other problems in the nursery as well. Give it a pass.
How’s the soil? If it’s dry, give the plant a pass (unless you’re buying cactus—and even then, the soil should be crumbly, not hard and rocky).
Are there any signs of insects? Looks for white, brown or yellow specks on the leaves and stem, or signs of chewing. If you find bugs, leave the plant.
How are the roots? You can gently tilt the plant out of its pot into your hand. The roots should be pale and firm, not black or brown, and the soil should smell wet, not like rotting garbage. That smell is a sign that the plant has been waterlogged, and the roots have begun to rot. There should be soil visible around and on top of the roots, showing that the plant has had enough room to grow.
Is it blooming? Then leave it alone. You want your new plant to flower in your garden, not the store. Choose a plant that is in bud, not in bloom.
Count your plants! If you’re buying a six-pack or a flat of plants, it can be easy to miss the fact that a plant is missing under all the foliage.
Do you spot weeds? Don’t bring a headache home. If there are other plants growing in the pot besides the one you want, find another plant—or another store.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.