Gardening 101

Shop the Garden Pot

I want to go shopping. The garden centers are filled with plants. Making the right choices when shopping sets the stage for how well my garden does later this season.

Dr. Liz Riley, a graduate of North Carolina State’s horticulture program, has conducted research on the nutritional needs of herbaceous perennials in production systems. She says that knowing how a plant was grown can help gardeners know how to successfully manage them. The clues are inside a plant’s growing container.

Take a Peek


According to Dr. Riley, “Look at the root system. Make sure it’s healthy. If the roots aren’t healthy then the plant will probably not establish well or be prolific in your landscape.” When possible, gently remove the plant from its container. You want to see white roots that are well branched and not circling the pot.

Trees and shrubs can be especially vulnerable to root circling. Breaking apart the roots may not correct the problem. It may do too much damage to the roots. Dark or slimy roots may indicate disease. The roots of smaller plants grown in packs can be inspected without removing the plant from its container. Look to see if the roots have grown beyond their confines. Avoid plants that have weeds or insects in their pots. Leave those plants behind and avoid introducing problems into your garden.

How Was It Raised


Plants raised in an outdoor nursery are often grown in a pine bark mixture which drains easily. Hardy plants such as herbaceous perennials, shrubs, woody trees, and ornamental grasses are typically produced outdoors. Whereas plants which can’t survive cold temperatures—tender annuals and summer bedding plants—are grown in the controlled environment of a greenhouse. Here the growers want the containers to retain moisture and normally use peat-based media.

Gardeners need to adjust watering to help transition plants to their new environment when planting into clay soil. Greenhouse-produced plants may need more watering and nursery-grown plants may need better drainage.

How Were Nutrients Provided


Nursery-grown plants are often given controlled-release fertilizers in granular form that can be seen on the surface of the soil. Greenhouse-grown plants often have nutrients delivered in liquid form. Suddenly stopping the delivery of nutrients will stress a plant. Dr. Riley explained that if you plan to use only liquid fertilizer start as soon as the plant begins to grow. This is especially important with summer annuals and vegetables. Alternatively, gardeners can apply a half dosage of controlled-release fertilizer at planting, and then begin with a half dosage of liquid fertilizer when the plant is established, and then pick up on a regular feeding schedule for the remainder of the growing season.



Is This the Right Plant?

Garden centers are tempting places. Knowing your soil, moisture, and sun exposure when selecting plants will lessen problems later on. Sometimes our good intentions get left behind and we select a plant knowing it won’t likely be a permanent resident in our garden. Or it’s not a perfect specimen, I feel sorry for it, and it comes home with me because I know I can nurse it back to good health. I’m not alone. Dr. Riley admitted, “Oh, I’m guilty of that. Sometimes I get something because I want to see how it does.”

Experimenting is part of the fun of gardening. So as you make your purchases this season shop the pot—a plant’s future is there to see.

Dr. Lise Jenkins produces the Triangle Gardener new podcast series. She also volunteers her time with the Durham county Master Gardener program.