Everyone buys at least some of their garden herbs from a nursery or big box store. The selection is far greater than if you grow everything from seed, and buying plants allows you to jump into the growing season ahead of the game. When buying potted herbs, there are a few indicators that are easy to see, telling you if the plant has been cared for properly, or is less than healthy plant specimen. Be wary! You could not only bring home a sick herb, you may be bringing home disease and pests that are lurking in your plants. They can then wreak havoc on your entire garden. Here are some things to avoid when buying potted herbs.
Dry Soil Is an Indication the Plant is Under Stress
When buying potted herbs (or any potted plant), consider the weight of the pot. The lighter the pot, the less water it contains. Avoid buying any pots that seem light for their size, or the soil has shrunk smaller than the pot around it. If you see space between the soil and the pot, reconsider buying. This is an indication that the plant is under stress and has not received proper water. Even if it is currently watered, or the employee offers to water the plant, chances are that it has been too stressed to grow optimally.
I always ask for my plants to have a drink before I load them. Because I am buying multiple flats, this has never been an issue, but if buying only a few pots, see if an employee is watering somewhere on the grounds. We always have someone putting water on *something*, and adding a sprinkle to a customer's haul is welcome.
Check for Visible Pests or Diseased Parts
Retail plant stores have to stay on top of their pests and disease issues. Choose to buy from places that seem to be always monitoring their product. Despite what appears to be close monitoring, even the most scrupulous shop owner can miss a problem. It is up to you to check your individual plants for any visible insects or disease problems. Turn the leaves over and inspect for visible insects hiding there. Look for chewed or damaged spots on the leaves and stems, and pick only the individual plants that have nothing. A disease can be in the form of mold, mildew, fuzzy, discoloration, slime, or powder. Lastly, do not buy a flat or 6 pack with a diseased plant in it. More than likely, the other 5 plants have been inoculated.
When you do find a plant that seems to be harboring some sort of insect or disease, please let the shop owner know (in a quiet, respectful tone), and do not handle the pot yourself if possible.
Be On the Lookout for Wilted Leaves or Stems
There are more obvious signs that a potted herb is best left at the store. These include wilted leaves or stems, additional leaves and/or stems in the pot itself, or on the ground around it.
Many times, workers will go through and remove the dead/dying parts, leaving unhealthy looking holes in the foliage or an extremely tall stem with a pouf on the top, of green leaves. Know what the herb is supposed to look like, and don't be fooled by early morning cleanup.
Avoid Heavily Damaged Containers
Containers can be brittle from sitting outside in the sun all season, but for most potted herbs, you are buying a new plant in a new pot. If your pot is cracked or straining at the seams, losing its bottom or broken along the top edge, it has either seen tremendous wear, age or the herb inside is busting out from being overgrown. Do not buy these potted herbs. They may never recover from confinement and will either die or continue to choke themselves out when their roots continue to bunch up and try to grow — even after transplanting.
Some more experienced gardeners will buy these plants, divide if possible, repot them and wait it out. Then if the potted herb makes it, replanting to the garden is fine. Unless you are an experienced gardener or have money to spare, pass these types of pots and plants over.
Beware of Overgrowth of Large Weeds
Weeds happen. Seeing tiny growth of unknown green in the bottom of a potted herb is natural and normal. What you are to avoid, is a hefty overgrowth of weeds. When the weeds are overtaking the actual herb, they have been left or ignored for too long.
Our youngest children have the task of plucking these weeds out of the pots on a weekly basis. The weeds seem to arrive out of nowhere and it's a fun chore that even the 2-year-old can manage. There is no reason that a garden center or nursery should have plants that are fighting for space with weeds.
Avoid Buying If Thick Roots Are Visible
Finally, the roots of a potted plant are a clear indication of how it is fairing in the pot. It is fine to see some small roots just starting to poke through the sides and bottom of porous pots. This is a sign of growth and their readiness to move to a larger container. It is the growing season after all.
The problem happens when the roots are thick and substantial. These can be growing around and around the pot, subsequently choking out the plant itself. Sometimes the heavier roots start growing out of the holes in the bottom as well. Even if you cut them off, too much damage can occur to the root system and the plant will eventually die. It is best to avoid these types of potted herbs.