How to choose healthy plants in Western New York

healthy plants at Mike Weber Greenhouses in West Seneca NY
Many plants seem healthy at a quick glance, but take a closer look to make sure there aren’t any disappointing surprises. Photo courtesy Mike Weber Greenhouses

by Connie Oswald Stofko

You’re at a garden center and you have found the variety of plant you want. There are several specimens to choose from. You pick up a pot.

Is the plant you hold in your hand healthy?

If it has something wrong with it, how would you even know?

Jen Weber, vice president and manager of Mike Weber Greenhouses, 42 French Rd., West Seneca, explains what you should look for when buying garden plants.  

Perennials and shrubs

Check for good roots

With perennials and shrubs, you are really buying the root stock; these plants die to the ground after a hard frost and will come back in the spring from the roots. To make sure you have a good specimen, look at the crown (base) of the plant. The crown should be firm and tight in the pot. It shouldn’t wiggle loose, be broken or be split. It shouldn’t be rotten. The stems at the base shouldn’t be soft or squishy or have large brown areas. If you see that, don’t buy that specimen.

However, if the plant has a broken stem or a few damaged leaves, go ahead and buy it. Next spring brand new foliage will appear.

Perennials with haircuts are fine

In the greenhouses, perennials are kept in benches with limited space. It would be nice to give the plants more room, but when that’s not possible, the staff may trim back the plant so it’s not bigger than the perimeter of the pot. Sometimes neighboring plants spread out and get tangled together. Don’t worry; perennials that have been cut will bush out once they’re planted. Sedum especially tends to grow together very quickly. It can be pulled apart or cut, then flourish once it’s planted.

Shrub shape

If you like a shrub but it isn’t perfectly shaped, buy it anyway. Shrubs can be pruned at home. “In general, when pruning I try to keep the shape loose and follow the shape the plant is already making,” Weber said. “I could make it into a square or a circle, but I stop at that point. I let the customer decide what shape it should be.”

Say no to stressed plants

Don’t worry if the soil of a plant is soggy or very dry. But don’t buy a plant if it is showing signs of stress–extremely wilted plant with grey-green foliage, crispy leaves, or completely dried up.

broken stem in West Seneca NY
If the main stem on a perennial is broken, don’t buy it. Photo courtesy Mike Weber Greenhouses

Broken foliage, yes; broken main stems, no

“On windy days, the plants in the greenhouses will dry out faster than we can water, especially when they’re in small pots,” she said. The soil in the pots may be drier than it should be and plants may fall off benches.

If broken foliage is present, the plant will be ok. 

However, if the main stem is cracked, or all of the foliage is broken, leave this plant behind.

Clematis

It can take several weeks for a broken branch on clematis to start dying, so you may not notice it right away. To see if there is a problem, inspect the vine at the base.

“If the break is at the base, it has a 50-50 shot of regrowing,” Weber said.

If the branch is broken higher up, it can be trimmed back and will do fine.

yarrow cut back in Mike Weber Greenhouses in West Seneca
The yarrow, a perennial, on the left is finished blooming. It will be cut back like the one on the right to help the plant reflower. Photo by Mike Weber Greenhouses

Buying during summer, autumn

When buying perennials and shrubs from summer to fall, look for new growth at the base. 

For example, daisies and yarrow will be finished with their main flowering in July. If you see that the foliage of those plants has been cut to the base, it’s because cutting the flowers off will help the plant will regrow and reflower.

rot at base of begonia in West Seneca NY
Look for rot at the base of a plant. Symptoms of rot are foliage or stems that are soft, brown or discolored. Photo courtesy Mike Weber Greenhouses

Annuals

Look for rot

Don’t buy an annual with rot. Symptoms of rot are foliage or stems that are soft, brown or discolored.

Not tall & leggy

For annuals, short and bushy is better than tall and leggy. Tall, leggy plants will fall over or break in the wind or a rain storm. These must be cut back, but let the garden center do it to get them to regrow.  Spend your money on the short bushy plants. They will be stronger and grow taller in the garden.  

wild stems on salvia in West Seneca NY
Two of the stems on this salvia ‘Blue Angel’ are upright while a third is at a weird angle. You can cut off the wild stem because this perennial has multiple stems.

Wild stems

Wild stems are stems that stick up or out, compared to the rest of the foliage. If a bushy plant like salvia has a wild stem, it can be cut off. A plant such as a zinnia, however, has only one stem. If you cut the stem, you will kill the plant.

Dahlias

Dahlias are famous for mildew. If a leaf or two has mildew, you can treat it at home (and you should treat it!). Horticultural oil works great. But if the whole plant has mildew, don’t buy it!

Plants should have leaves

If you buy houseplants or tropical plants in late April or early May, you might get them home and find they’re dropping their leaves.

That’s because the plants are stressed. They have left Florida’s heat to be in a semi trailer for three to seven days without water, then arrive in Buffalo’s cold, sometimes snowy weather, she explained.

The plants may look fine for a few days after that, so ask the staff when the plants came in. The plants should have been here about a week before you buy them. That is ample time for any problems to show themselves. 

“One year, a shipment arrived all broken and frozen,” Weber said. “Black, wet-looking leaves covered parts of hibiscus trees. They do recover and grow out of it, but it takes time. Let the garden center regrow it.”

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