How to select container plants

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By Master Gardener, Brunswick County Extension

In late winter and early spring, garden centers are receiving their new plant material. When you go to the garden center, how do you decide what to buy, given so many choices and so many types?

The first thing to do is check out the label that is attached to the plant. This will indicate the hardiness zone, mature size of the plant, sun and shade requirements and what the watering requirements are for this particular plant. 

In addition, the label will tell you if the plant is deciduous or evergreen (obvious at this time of the year but necessary in the spring and summer), as well as identify other attractive features of the plant like flower color, fall foliage color or interesting bark characteristics. This data allows you to select plants that are suited to the site you have selected for a plant.

Once you have decided on the type of plant you want, you must select one from the multiple plants available. Your concern becomes how to select the best one available. If the stems or foliage show any discoloration, set that particular plant aside. Next turn the leaves over and look for any white, red, yellow, gray or black spots. This indicates insect presence or damage. Then look for any mechanical damage to the stems, branches or foliage. 

Set aside any plants that show evidence of insects or handling and shipping damage. If the plant is deciduous, you must determine if it is alive or dead. Do this by checking the stems to determine if they are brittle or flexible. Gently try to bend the stems; if they bend, the plant is alive. When stems break, the indication is a dead plant. Be careful when doing this so that you do not damage a healthy plant.

Whether you are picking a deciduous or evergreen plant, you should look for a plant that has a nice full canopy. Also check the top of the pot to see if there are any circling roots or roots that are girding a stem. Pass these plants over because circling or girding roots can restrict the proper growth of a plant. 

Next, try to gently remove the plant from the pot. Do this by gently rocking the plant as you hold the stem near the soil and lift up. It sometimes helps to turn the plant upside down when trying to remove the plant. When removed, again look for circling roots or an abundance of roots that could indicate the plant has been in the pot for a long time. 

If you feel hesitant to remove the plant from the pot, ask the nurseryman to do it for you. If there are no circling roots, inspect the roots. They should be plump, light tan in color, firm fleshy and not slimy. Slimy roots can be an indication of some root disease problems.

As you are making your selections, don’t hesitate to ask your nurseryman any questions. They should be able to answer all your questions. In addition, they will have insight as to what plants do well in your area. 

Also be sure to ask them about any warranty or replacement guarantees they offer on the plants.

Shopping for plants can be fun. These suggestions will help you make better selections of containerized plants.

Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.