Getting to the Root of Plant Choices


Linda H. Yates is a Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Leon County and a member of its Horticultural Advisory Committee .For more local gardening information, visit the UF-IFAS Extension website for Leon County at


If you love flowers, a trip to a garden center or nursery can be hazardous.  Impulsively, you load your shopping cart with one or two of the dozens of plants that catch your eye.  The blue delphiniums are smashing; never mind your garden soil is like packed red clay.  The roses are fragrant and beautiful; never mind your yard is mostly shaded. And what a charming array of colors are displayed in the zinnias, marigolds, impatiens, snapdragons, coleus, coneflowers, phlox and salvias. Two of each?


Wait!  In Plant Shopping 101, homework comes first.  Take note of the conditions where your plants will be grown.  Is the soil well-drained and fertile, sandy, boggy or hard clay?  Is the site shady or sunny?  There are plants that do well in most of these conditions.  You can narrow your selections to suit the conditions or you can make it easier to grow the varieties you like by solving the soil problems first.


Dig in rich topsoil, compost and other organic matter if the soil is compacted and unfertile, and build raised beds if poor drainage is a problem.


 Decide how many plants you want to place in shady areas and in sunny areas.   Do you want a mixture of plants that will bloom  this year, go dormant and return next spring (perennials) as well as some that will bloom all summer and then die (annuals)?


Visualize how a few accent shrubs such as buddleia and hydrangea, and yes, roses, will add to the mix.


 If you already have a garden full of plants and just need to fill in a few spots or add seasonal color, then annuals may be the answer.   Rather than selecting a hodgepodge of colors, select those that blend with the color scheme of your garden and use three to five plants of one kind in each grouping. Go for impact rather than variety.


Nursery personnel can provide assistant to help home gardeners choose the right plants.  Most garden centers now sell plants with labels advising whether they should be grown in sun, part sun or shade, when they bloom, and how large they can be expected to grow.  The ultimate size is especially important for choosing the right trees and shrubs for your yard.


If a plant you like has no or insufficient information, ask the staff and the Nursery for help. Most are trained and are there to help customers. They also may be able to suggest a plant for a specific spot in your garden. 


Local nurseries also are offering plants that grow well in this area so you can be assured of their cold hardiness and tolerance of our heat and humidity.  However, if you are shopping from a catalogue or in another state, make sure the plant is appropriate for this area.


Having chosen the variety, next comes the most important assignment:  Pick the healthiest plant available and the biggest that accommodates your budget.  Its leaves should be deep green (unless it is a yellow variety) and free of holes and brown edges.  Look for vigorous, thick growth, not tall, spindly plants.  Leggy plants with few leaves on the stems indicate they have been around for a while and may be root-bound as well.


Look for new growth, proper shape and stem structure.  Deformed leaves and buds and blemishes may harbor an insect or fungus problem.  Check the leaves for insects; you donít want to take them home with you.


Although plants already in bloom are hard to resist, it is wiser to choose those not yet blooming.  The plant will do much better if all of its energy can go to establishing its roots in your garden before it starts blooming.  The flowering stage will last longer too.  There are times, of course, when you need instant color, for a garden party for example.   Then it makes sense to choose the largest plants with the most flowers available.


No matter how beautiful the flower, itís the roots that count.  With perennials, the roots are what makes the plants come back next year.  A mature plantís roots should be reaching out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the container and appear pale and white at the tips.  This is a sign that they are actively growing.  If a slight tug lifts the plant, roots and all, out of the container, you can see for yourself if the plant is pot bound.  Its roots may be circling the pot so tightly, the plant is stressed.  If such a plant is being sold at a reduced price, it may still be a bargain.  When setting it out in your garden, unfurl the roots with your fingers or take a knife and slit the outer sides.  This root pruning will help the roots move out into the soil.


Buy only the number of plants you will be able to set out in a day or two.  Small bedding plants dry out quickly and must be watered daily if not planted.  Plants in gallon or larger containers may be kept until you have time to set them out if kept moist and in a shady spot. 


Choosing healthy plants and placing them in the right spot in your garden is the first step in successful gardening.