Buyer Beware: Inspect Plant Material Closely Before Purchase

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Working as a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, one would think visiting a garden center is fun and relaxing. You may be surprised, but for me and certainly horticulturists everywhere, it can be stressful. Where every other shopper sees roses, I see rose rosette virus. Where my wife sees a deal of a tree, I see a tree too deep in the pot and a plague of circling roots. Despite my continual denials, my wife's term for this is plant snob.

A significant portion of my job involves diagnosing problems in the garden and landscape. From weather to pests and even humans, (plus the myriad of in-between) there are many things that can and do go wrong with plants.

The best way to avoid problems is to not bring problem plants home in the first place. Inspect plant material closely before purchase at the garden center. Following are some items to be mindful of when plant shopping:

  • Look for dead, discolored, or wilted branches and leaves. This may indicate a bigger problem such as disease.
  • Check the health of the roots. Gently lift the plant out of the pot to inspect the roots. (Ask for help with larger plants) Healthy roots are white. Unhealthy roots are darker, may be mushy, and could have a foul smell.
  • The white and healthy roots should form a solid root ball that doesn't fall apart when removed from the pot.
  • Exercise caution with plants that have excessive circling roots (aka root bound plants). Circling roots can be especially troublesome with trees and shrubs. Once a root begins to circle in a pot, it will continue to do so in the ground; meaning the plant will never become established and given time, the root will circle the trunk and girdle the tree. Make four vertical slits in the root ball at planting to help correct circling roots and encourage roots to venture into the soil. The only definite way to correct a circling root is to completely remove it.
  • Check the top and underside of leaves for evidence of insect feeding. Some insects attach themselves to branches and trunks such as the white fuzzy mealybug or oval to round-shaped bumps known as scale. Give the plant a gentle shake. If you see tiny white insects take flight, these are whitefly and are considered pests, especially for indoor plants.

Buying from a reputable nursery or garden center won't eliminate the risk, but it does lower the potential for bringing home problems.

It is not all doom and gloom being a horticulture educator. I still get a thrill when bringing home new plants and watching them grow and trying new and unique specimens. Hmm, a point of concession- perhaps my experiences in horticulture have led to a rise of my own plant snobbery. Don't tell my wife.