Documents: Gardening From: Gardening From Alaska:

So Many Choices
by Marion Owen
by Marion Owen


When not tending 20 raised beds of vegetables, herbs and flowers, Marion Owen of Kodiak, Alaska is a master gardener, professional photographer and "Fearless Weeder" (President) of PlanTea, Inc., the company that developed PlanTea, the original and patented organic plant food in convenient tea bags (available online at

She also co-authored the bestseller, "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul."

April 19, 2009

Garden centers offer a staggering variety of plants. It's a match made in gardener's heaven: They have plants, and you want plants. I'm the first to admit however, that when I enter a nursery I throw caution to the wind. Faced with so many choices, my shopping list stretches like warm taffy and I usually end up with more plants than I intended.

Buying annuals and perennials direct from a garden center allows you get the pick of the litter, so long as you know what to look for. Here are some valuable tips you'll want to carry with you when plant shopping:

Bushy is better

Select plants that are bushy and full. Avoid plants that are spindly and sparse, as they may be root-bound, light-starved, or have been subjected to extreme heat, dehydration, or lack of vital nitrogen.

Get to the root of the matter

See if there are roots growing out the pot's drainage holes. If none are showing, gently--and I mean GENTLY, since you haven't bought the plant yet--remove the plant and root ball from the pot and see if the roots are growing in a circular pattern. Both of these signs means the plant has been in the pot way too long. It ma,y or may not, survive being transplanted.

You CAN judge a plant by its color

The rule of thumb is to pick a plant with healthy, lush leaves. With the exception of naturally variegated leaves, leaf color can tell you a lot about plants. Here are some color tips to help you tell the difference between a healthy and sickly plant:


Yellow or light green leaves usually indicates that the plant lacks one or both of the following:

1) Nitrogen (N) --The plant turns light green, followed by a yellowing. Also called chlorosis, nitrogen deficiency stunts growth and causes leaves to fall off, beginning with the older ones.

2) Sufficient light


A silver or purple cast to the leaves mean the plant has had poor care in general, or that it was cold-damaged. Leaves turn silvery or purple when subjected to cold air. You see this happening when seedlings, such as marigolds, are transplanted outside while the air temperature is still too cool. Plants usually recover and put out new growth if growing conditions improve.


It's hard to imagine, but there are times when greener is not always better. A lack of phosphorus (P) causes leaves to take on an almost surreal dark green or dull, blue-green color. Dark, extra-dark leaves may also indicate the plant has received too much nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer.

+ + Tongue-in-Cheek Definitions + +

ANNUAL: Any plant that dies before blooming.

PERENNIAL: Any plant which, had it lived, would have bloomed year after year.

--from "Gardening: A Dictionary for Weedpullers, Slugcrushers & Backyard Botonists" by Henry Beard & Roy McKie - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Those pesky pests

Check plants for pests by inspecting stems, leaves and the surface of the soil. Don't forget to look UNDER the leaves for hitchhikers. To an observer, you might look like an finicky shopper, but there's nothing worse than introducing an army of pests through a 'Trojan Horse' plant.

Inspect the flowers

If you know the plant you're buying has the right flower color you're looking for, then choose one that's not in bloom but has plenty of buds. (Reason: A plant with buds, but not yet blooming can direct energy toward establishing a healthy root system. As a result, the bloom period will be longer and more prolific). On the other hand, if you don't know the flower color, find a specimen with a bloom so there won't be any surprises.

Get the right plant

It may sound silly, but labels do get switched or lost. If there's any doubt, ask a staff member to verify the plant. Speaking of plant labels, I read an account of a Delaware woman whose formal garden was featured on the local garden tour. A young mother finished the tour, thanked her host and handed her the 50 plant labels her children had collected.

Meanwhile, back at the garden

Before heading out on a plant shopping spree, have a spot prepared (and not just in your mind!) It's a shame to bring home lots of beautiful plants in pots or flats only to have them shrivel, become stressed, or even die sitting around waiting for a bigger, better home in the soil. If you can't get them into the ground immediately, provide a holding area for them out of direct sun, heavy rain, or gusty wind. Keep them well watered and don't let them dry out.

Transplanting tips

Transplant bedding plants on an overcast, foggy or drizzly day to prevent transplant shock. Water your plants well, loosen the roots by massaging the pot or wiggling the plant. Dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball, making sure the soil is also damp. It is very important that the plant's roots make immediate wet-to-wet contact with the new soil. Set the plant in and press the soil around it firmly, but gently. Keep a close eye on them for the next couple weeks. Have shade and frost covers handy, and protect them from birds, cats, and dogs that like to dig in the garden!

Next time you go plant shopping, make a list and remember to think "bushy"!

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row