What to Look For When Buying Potted Herbs

Garden Center Plant Nursery with Fresh Spring Flowers and Basil
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Fresh culinary herbs like basil, dill and parsley bring great summer flavor to the dinner table. Most are easily grown from seed but for those who can't wait for their herbs to reach the harvest stage, a good selection can be found at garden stores just about everywhere. In fact, there may be so many to choose from, how do you decide which are the best plants to take home? When buying potted herbs, there are a few things to look out for; indicators telling you if the plant has been cared for properly. No one wants to set out a plant that could introduce insect pests or disease into the garden. Here are some things to look for 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 where the soil has shrunk smaller than the pot around it. If you see space between the soil and the pot, look for a better specimen. 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.

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 monitor their products. Garden retail during the spring planting season is a non-stop labor intensive business and, despite their best efforts, even the most scrupulous shop owner can miss a problem. It is up to you to check your selections for any visible insects or disease problems. Turn the leaves over and inspect for eggs or insects hiding there. Look for chewed or damaged spots on the leaves and stems, and pick only the individual plants with a flawless appearance. Disease can be present 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 five plants are already infected.

When you do find a plant that seems to be harboring some sort of insect or disease, 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 of green leaves at the top. Know what the herb is supposed to look like, and don't be fooled by salvage attempts.

Avoid Heavily Damaged Containers

Containers can get 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 the 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.

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 on these types of pots and plants.

Beware of Overgrowth of Large Weeds

Weeds happen. Seeing the tiny growth of unknown green in the bottom of a potted herb is natural and normal. What you want 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 material like peat 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.

Where to Buy Quality Herbs

Most garden nurseries and greenhouses will carry a wide variety of herbs with many plants of each species. Sometimes the plants at the back of the table are missed when it comes to sufficient watering and attention. With literally hundreds of plants to care for, it is easy to miss one here and there, but these operations do tend to employ people with knowledge and/or at least an interest in gardening. Local farmer's markets and garden club sales can also be a good source for quality herbs. Plants and garden supplies are just one part of a large multi-focused operation at big box stores and groceries. Regardless of where you choose to shop, always select the best herbs you can afford to buy.