Gardening 101: How to Pick The Perfect Plants

As a lifelong gardener with children, and now grandchildren, I reflect somewhat frequently on the advancements I’ve seen in the various horticultural disciplines over the years. Plant propagation has moved from seeds in the ground to tissue culture in the laboratory. Fertilization has come from spread-it-on-anything, general purpose formulations to species-specific blends. Our understanding of root systems has grown from “it’s best if the plant has some,” to understanding and nurturing the economy of microscopic critters beneath the soil which keep our gardens going. Landscape design has traded straight lines of single-species plantings situated perpendicularly to a home’s foundation for a great diversity of genera situated and flowing more for aesthetics and enjoyment than for hiding foundations (thank goodness). The list goes on…

Many of you who have been gardening for several years have certainly noticed much of the same, and more. And it’s often you (experienced gardener) that we are writing to with these posts. But for the next few weeks, we’d like to speak to all of the brand-new gardeners out there. As knowledge isn’t something that can be picked from a tree, we’d like to offer a few posts for the next generation.

In this first post, we’ll answer the question “How do I pick the healthiest plants at the garden center?”

Three Observations

Shopping for plants when you’ve gone so far in life without being a gardener can feel like shopping for a used car when you’ve gone so far in life without being a mechanic. Walking into either situation may stir up a weight of discouragement that nearly turns you back around, suspecting that it’s a bet you aren’t equipped to place. Regarding used cars: may the force be with you. But plant shopping: this we can help you with.

There are three main attributes to look for in a healthy plant. These are color, form, and other.


A great way to determine the health of a plant is to observe its color. Is the color consistent throughout the plant, or are there portions that seems to be lighter or darker than the rest? If there are variations in color, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re looking at a lemon, but that your study should continue.

The plant that you’re considering is probably situated in the garden center with several more of its kind nearby. Is the coloring of your favorite consistent with the coloring of the rest? If so, your plant probably passes the color test. While it’s not uncommon for nurseries and garden centers to have a couple of plants that are a better fit for the compost pile than the garden, it’s very unlikely that they will have an entire crop of the same plant that is bad. Check the color, compare it to the colors of its brothers and sisters, and maybe Google it if you’re still unsure.


The form of a plant is also a good indicator of health. Look at all 360 degrees of the plant and turn it on its vertical axis, if you’re able. Are there any scrapes on the trunk or stems? Minor scrapes and scratches usually heal without a problem, but it's something to take note of. Is the branching fairly equal and consistent, or does that plant appear unbalanced like a few parts of it may have been broken off or pruned away. If all of the plants' neighbors are cubed but you’re looking at a bad rendition of a triangle, there may be something wrong.

It’s good to remember, though, that not all plants are meant to be shaped as spheres and cubes, so you can’t judge based on that alone, but nearly all should be somewhat predictable in their branching and their form. Again, compare them to their neighbors and look for differences. Are the neighboring plants budded or blooming? Yours should be, too. Are the leaves consistently shaped, or do some of them have curled, colored, or chewed on edges? Look for uniformity as much as possible.


This test looks for anything on the plant that is “other” than normal leaves, stems, flowers – anything other than the plant, itself. Are there white or gray spots on the leaves? While these may just be water spots from the minerals in over-head irrigation, they may also be a mildew or fungus. Look underneath the leaves. Anything unusual? Bumps? Little dots moving around? Look closely at the flower, if it’s in bloom. Look at the new growth, too. Bugs love eating new growth. If you see anything other, you may want to consider another plant.

Observing the color, form, and other categories of a plant this way will certainly help you to pick the best plants the next time you’re out, but I want to offer one more suggestion: Talk to one of the garden center employees, if you have a question. After your observations, ask them if they know why this plant has "X" going on, but the others don’t. Or why the leaves on this one are speckled but the others aren’t. It’s a good way to both grow in your knowledge and to keep the garden center aware of the condition of its plants.

Common Issues To Look For

Sure, inchworms are cute – but they’re also always hungry.

Itty-bitty colored bumps on the plant that move are certainly trouble. Usually aphids.

Darker brown spots usually indicate a fungal infection.

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