Even if there is another burst of winter weather, spring really is practically here. The supermarket and garden centre are already starting to blossom with plants for the garden, balcony, window sill and patio. They look bright and cheerful and it’s so tempting just to pick up the nearest one. A few moments checking the plant over, though, will make sure that you’re not wasting your money. Here are some tips to help you buy the best plant.

Garden centre, Warrington

The garden centre, Warrington. © Ronald Saunders and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Is the plant in good condition?

  1. Look for plenty of leaves and shoots growing evenly through the plant. The leaves should be green and healthy - unless they are meant to be coloured or variegated!
  2. Check carefully for signs of disease or pests such as aphids, whitefly and scale insect. Do not take a plant home if you find warning signals such as holes, unhealthy-looking leaves or ragged edges.
  3. Avoid containers which are hosting weeds as well as the plant.
  4. Knock the plant out of its pot to check the roots. (A good garden centre won’t mind this at all.) A good plant will fill the pot, but won't be pot-bound. Pot-bound plants have roots poking out of the bottom of the pot, forming a dense mat or circling round and round the compost ball. They don’t do well when they are planted out. On the other hand, if there are hardly any roots you’re probably looking at a tiny plant that’s recently been potted on. It’s not worth paying the larger plant price for this one. With plug plants or trays, choose ones where the roots are just poking through the holes at the bottom.
Extremely pot-bound spider plant. Garden centre

Extremely pot-bound spider plant. © Keith Williamson and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Check the paperwork

  1. Snap? If the plant is in flower, does it match the picture on the label?
  2. Has the plant been awarded the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM), indicated by its green cup symbol? This means that the plant has successfully been through trials for pest and disease resistance, and hardiness.
  3. Is there a guarantee, now offered by many garden centres?
  4. Check that the plant is suited to your garden. There’s no point in buying something that won’t grow, after all. Read the label carefully or ask the staff. Garden centre staff are usually keen to offer advice, a definite point in their favour over supermarkets and DIY superstores. And be realistic: do you actually have space for this plant?
The garden centre, Avalon Farm.

The garden centre, Avalon Farm. © Leonora (Ellie) Enking and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Choose the best, and the right size for you

  1. Save money by buying smaller plants. Many perennials, shrubs and young trees will grow quickly and strongly, once planted out, and they will establish themselves more reliably than mature specimens.
  2. Or you could buy larger perennials and annuals that look ready to divide. If you did this, you’d get two or more plants for the price of one.
  3. Find the best. Look through all the plants in a batch to choose the one with the best shape. You don't have to pick the one nearest to you! Choose plants in bud rather than in flower, and reject any with broken stems or branches.

Good luck, and good gardening!