We’ve all had it happen. An attractive plant jumps into your shopping cart all by itself but doesn’t perform well at home. Here are some hints for buying plants at the nursery that will improve your chances for success.

Pick the site first. A high percentage of plants that fail in home gardens are purchased on impulse with no location in mind. You get the plant home and then ask yourself, “Where should I put it?”

Knowing where you are going to put the plant before you buy it is the best way to ensure success. Check to see if the plant in question is compatible with your selected location’s conditions like sun versus shade; wet versus dry; and acid versus alkaline soil.

The plant’s preferences should be on the tag. If not, ask someone at the store.

Inspect each plant closely for problems. Foliage should be firm and look good compared to similar plants in the store. Leaves should not be yellowing or wilted. New growth shouldn’t be spindly. No bugs, spider webs or fungus.

If the pot has weeds, shop elsewhere. You don’t want the grower’s weeds in your garden.

If a plant is staked, untie the stem to see if it is substantial enough to keep the plant upright. Inspect stems and branches of woody plants for scars or other damage where insects or diseases might find a home.

Buds versus blooms. If you are buying annual flowers, look for a mix of buds and blooms so when the current flowers fade new ones are ready to take over. For perennials, don’t worry about the flowers — you’re better off removing them the first year because you want the plant’s energy focused on root development.

Look at the roots. Roots are an important indication of plant health. Pull the plant out of the container and take a close look (if the store objects to you doing this, take your business elsewhere.) Healthy roots are white, not tan or brown. The root mass should be substantial and should fill the pot to the edges without any gaps. The root ball and surrounding soil should be moist (except for succulents.) No diseases or insects should be apparent.

Roots growing circularly around the circumference of the pot or through the bottom of the pot are a good indication that the plant is root-bound. You can cut into the root system to spread them out, but you’ll have better luck if it’s not root-bound to start with.

Where to buy. Whenever possible, I buy from nurseries that grow what they sell from seeds, plugs or mother plants. You may pay a slight premium for these, but your chances for success are much improved. Big box stores can be good sources because they typically get their plants from regional growers. But the big stores don’t always have knowledgeable garden personnel around when you have a question. And “regional” in our area covers an awful lot of different growing conditions.

Follow the rules above and the plants you purchase will have a better chance of thriving in your garden.

(Jim Janke is an extension master gardener volunteer in Haywood County. For more information, visit https://haywood.ces.ncsu.edu, or call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575. ©2021 NC State University.)

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