Tips on what to look for in nursery plants, and what to expect when you order plants from a catalog.

June 08, 2015

Perennials bought at retail outlets, such as garden centers and hardware stores, as well as many plants purchased through mail-order companies, are usually packed in pots or cell packs. (Some mail-order plants are shipped bare-root.)

Potted perennials are described and priced by their pot diameter. Smaller containers (cell packs) are usually made of plastic and joined together in groups of four or six with each cell containing an individual plant. Sometimes cell packs consist of biodegradable material. That means you can set the plant undisturbed directly into the soil.

Perennials are also sold in undivided flats that are the size of six-cell packs. They generally contain many seedlings, which must be pulled apart before they can be planted; roots are often broken in the process. Unless you have no other choice, avoid buying perennials that are packaged in this manner.

Obviously, when you buy nursery plants through the mail you incur shipping costs. These costs are lower if the plant and the container are small; this is one of the reasons why most mail-order nursery plants are sold in cell packs rather than pots.

How to Plant Nursery Plants

Plan Arrangement
Step 1

1. Before planting container-grown plants, set out the plants in their pots to determine the best arrangement. Plants in asymmetrical clubs generally look most natural.

Dig Planting Hole
Step 2

2. Dig a planting hole deep enough to hold the plant at the same depth it was growing in the container. Remove any rocks of root clumps obstructing the hole.

Slide Plant out of Pot
Step 3

3. Gently slide the plant out of the pot, first tapping the bottom of the pot with a trowel handle to loosen the root ball if necessary.

Set Plant Fill Hole
Step 4

4. Set the plant in the hole and fill in around the roots with soil. Water; then add more soil if needed to completely fill the hole.

Nursery vs. Mail Order

One advantage of buying plants from a mail order nursery is that they often offer plants you can't find elsewhere. If you decide to order some little-known beauties through the mail, make sure the nursery guarantees that the plant is healthy and that it will arrive in good condition. Then follow the planting guidelines discussed below.

An advantage to buying from a garden center is that you can personally inspect the plants to make sure they are healthy and purchase them on the day you plant to place them in your garden. Don't buy perennials that display any of the following signs of disease or neglect.

  • Yellow or wilted leaves -- often an indication of illness or lack of water.
  • Spindly stems -- a sign that the plant has been growing in the pot too long.
  • Many flowers -- an indication that the plant has put most of its energy into blooms and many easily succumb to transplant shock.
  • Weeds in the container -- a clear sign that the plant is being robbed of nutrients.
  • Roots crawling out of the pot bottom -- another sign that a perennial has outgrown its container and is in a stressed condition.
  • Before planting your new perennials, water the seedlings so that the potting mix is firm and adheres to the plant. Then prepare a planting hole, remove the container (it can usually be snipped with scissors and then cut apart), and put the plant and its potting mix into the appropriate area. Place it as deep as the soil line in the container and fill in remaining gaps with garden soil.
  • Once the new plant has been placed in your garden, press down the surrounding soil so that it is firmly anchored in place. Gently water the area until it is well soaked. If you use a hose, make sure that the force of the water does not uproot your new flower.


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