5 Tips on Choosing a High-Quality Nursery Transplant

Most gardeners look forward to shopping for plants at a nursery every spring, but did you know there's a right and a wrong way to select a nursery transplant for your garden?

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Shopping for plants at your local nursery is one of the tasks most gardeners look forward to every spring. It’s fun to peruse row after row of colorful annuals, herbs and vegetable starts, looking for the perfect ones to include in your garden. But, did you know there’s a right and a wrong way to select a nursery transplant for your garden? Most gardeners tend to select the biggest transplant with the largest number of flowers or flower buds, but as it turns out, this is exactly what you should not be doing when buying starter plants from a nursery.

Instead, here are five things to look for when picking the perfect nursery transplant for your garden.

1. Think Small

When it comes to your next garden center shopping spree, don’t reach for the biggest transplants. Instead, opt for those on the smaller side. Bigger transplants face an increased risk of transplant shock, not just because their roots are probably circling within the container, but also because they’re more used to growing in the perfect conditions of a greenhouse. If you select a smaller transplant instead, the transplanting process with go far more smoothly, with little to no risk of bound roots or transplant shock. Plus, smaller plants tend to acclimate to garden conditions a bit faster.

2. No Blooms

Always buy transplants with no flowers or flower buds on them. While it’s tempting to buy plants that are already in flower, they’ll end up focusing their energies on producing those flowers and subsequent seeds, when what you want is a plant that focuses first on growing a healthy root system and a lush mound of foliage. Once a transplant takes hold and develops an ample root system, it will bloom more beautifully and longer than a plant that was focusing too much energy on flower production right out the gate.

3. No Piggybacking Bugs

It’s important that you carefully inspect every nursery transplant before bringing it home to your garden. Without a thorough check, you could be importing whiteflies, mealybugs, aphids or other pernicious garden pests. Check leaf undersides, stems and any tender, new growth for signs of insect pests, and if any are present, skip that nursery and find another that has pest-free plants for purchase.

4. Roots Don’t Lie

Before purchasing a nursery transplant, you’ll want to look at more than just the leaves. Pop the plant out of its pot and take a good look at the roots, too. Ideally, they should not be pot-bound and circling around inside the container. They should also be white and mold-free. Crunch a root between your thumbnail and forefinger. Is it crisp and fleshy or dry and shriveled? Don’t purchase transplants whose roots are mushy or smelly either; that could be a sign of rot or some type of fungal disease. Also be on the lookout for soil-dwelling pests.

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5. Ask About Systemic Pesticides

Since nurseries want to grow a perfect crop of transplants for their customers, some might resort to using systemic chemical pesticides. These pesticides are absorbed into the vascular tissue of plants and are often found in the plant’s pollen and nectar, too, negatively impacting the health of the pollinators who forage on them. To make sure you don’t inadvertently bring these systemic chemical pesticides into your garden, ask the nursery if they use them. Some big box stores require these products to be listed on the plant tags, so look carefully, but smaller nurseries often don’t label plants where these products have been applied, so the only way to know is to ask.

Selecting and buying healthy nursery transplants is a must if you want to get this year’s garden off to a great start.

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