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Buying a Plant: 6 Tips for Choosing Seedlings for Your Garden

Don’t just grab the first plant you see! Pick up your seedling and give it a thorough check with these tips on how to choose garden plants and veggies. Spoiler alert: avoid buying a plant that’s already flowering.

top tips for buying a plant from the garden centre

If I’m being honest, I can’t drive by the garden centre without stopping and taking a peek. Or I’ll stop in for a bag of coconut coir and somehow walk away with two tomato plants, some pansies, and a blueberry bush.

When I’m shopping for plants, I’ve reached a point where I can look at a seedling and instantly know whether it’s healthy.

But when you’re first starting out, thoroughly checking a plant to ensure it’s thriving before you bring it home is always a good idea.

After all, the last thing you want is to spend your money on a plant that will die two weeks later or produce few flowers or fruit compared to others in the batch.

So, let me tell you what I look for when buying a plant.

tips for buying a plant at the nursery
Healthy tomato seedling

How to Choose Plants For Your Garden

Here are my dos and my don’ts when it comes to knowing what plant to buy. It’s pretty easy to weed out the unhealthy plants when you know what to look for.

DO: Look at Foliage

The very first thing I do, especially when I’m buying vegetable plants, is ensure that all the leaves have a healthy colour. I want to avoid any with yellowing or brown spots.

This rule only applies to the “true leaves,” AKA the adult leaves. If the bottom layer of baby leaves, known as the cotyledon, is yellowing and falling off, that’s completely normal. Think of it like losing your baby teeth to make room for your adult teeth.

It’s even better if you see some new tiny growth emerging up top, as you know the plant is actively happy and growing.

DO: Check for Stem Damage

Like checking the foliage, you’ll also want to give the stem a quick check before buying a plant. Ensure there are no breaks and that the stem is sturdy. It should be able to handle the weight of all the growth on top and the potential fruit to come.

Kale and cucumber seedlings growing under lights
These cucumber and kale seedlings are a little small yet. Buy plants with at least two sets of true leaves (adult leaves).

DO: Analyze the Plant’s Shape

Compact and full plants are ideal. Of course, this depends on the plant’s natural growth. But just because it’s tall doesn’t make it better.

For instance, if I’m looking at a bunch of tomato plants, I will buy one that’s more compact. If it’s too tall and spread out, it didn’t receive enough light while growing and has gotten leggy. The compact growth will be stronger in the long run.

Leggy tomato seedlings under a grow light
These tomato seedlings didn’t get enough light from the grow lights and became leggy.

DO: Check the Root Systems

If everything’s looking good on top, you’ll also want to take a peek at what lies below. First, you can lift up the pot and check for roots coming out of the bottom.

If you see lots, it means the plant is rootbound. This just means you’ll need to get it planted ASAP if you buy it. It also may be harder to break up the roots while planting.

I also like to hold the bottom of the stem and gently pull it from the plastic pot if I’m able so I can check the roots. This just allows me to make sure there are no brown or mushy roots, as some unhealthy plants can have root rot, and ensure that I can gently break up the roots when planting.

Woman pulling a clump of basil out from the garden
This basil plant was actually made of many small seedlings, and I could gently split them and their roots apart to make more basil plants.

DO: Look for Signs of Pests and Disease

The last thing you want to do is bring pests or diseases back to your healthy plants at home. With houseplants, fungus gnats are super easy to transfer between plants, so you want to ensure you see no little guys flying when you give your plant a gentle shake.

Otherwise, look under the leaves, at the leaf nodes, on the stem, and at the top of the soil for any suspicious pest or fungus activity.

DON’T Choose Plants That Are Already Flowering

This may sound counterintuitive, but you want to avoid already flowering plants and look for ones that don’t have fruit on them yet, specifically seedlings and young plants.

If a vegetable already has some fruit, it’s stressed out in the pot and trying to set out fruit and complete its life cycle.

We don’t want that.

We also don’t want to eat anything that grew on the plant before it gets to your house, as it could be coated in herbicides and pesticides from the nursery.

Of course, this rule does not apply to bedding plants or ornamental flowers. This is more so for fruits and vegetables and plants that only flower once per season.

zucchini plant
Zucchini flower

If you have any more questions about buying plants or starting your garden, leave them in the comments below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able.

More Tips for Buying a Plant

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