Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Picking Winners at the Nursery

By Ron Sullivan
Friday August 17, 2007

As it’s almost planting time (for leisurely values of “almost”) I’ll talk about how to pick your posies. Some of us are on-the-ball enough to do all our planting from seeds and/or divisions and cuttings of our own, but most of us are the sort of people who keep nurseries in business by letting them do the early stuff.  

I have no guilt about not being an early bird because I’ve noticed what happens to the early worm. 

So you walk into a nursery or, more perilously, into a hardware or big-box discount store, and you’re looking at appealing baby plants. Which ones are you going to take home? Which ones are most likely to prosper in your house or garden?  

It’s like choosing your puppy out of a big litter. Ideally, you look for the most friendly and interested one, neither the most aggressive nor the shy runt. OK, some of us take in runts just because. I seem to accumulate them here at the South Berkeley Plant Hospice and Hortatorium. But take my advice, not my example, unless you have a capacious composter. 

Here’s a batch of four-inchers looking cheerful and flowery. It’s good to see one in bloom so you know what you’re getting; it’s generally best to take one that has more buds than blooms. Lots of plants, annuals included, are repeat bloomers, but you don’t want one who’s not ready to retire already. 

Read the tags, either on the plants themselves or on the shelf. (Find out for sure that the shelf tag matches the plant. Things can get deranged even before you take them home.) Learn if it’s an annual or a perennial. Usually an annual will give you faster bloom, fill-in, and effects in general; perennials are slower-yielding investments.  

Tags should also tell you whether the plants like shade or sun, water or drought. “Tolerant” means it’ll get by; look again for its preference and be sure you know what you’ll tolerate yourself in its “performance.” “Full sun” doesn’t mean it gets direct sunlight for an hour or three a day; it means it casts a shadow for most of the daylight hours.  

Also, most of us west of the Berkeley hills get less sun than our eastern neighbors anyway. Many plants that are labeled for “light shade” will be fine in as much sun as you get—at least after the hottest days of September.  

Pick up the plant container. Roots emerging from the bottom holes suggest that the plant’s been there almost too long. You’ll lose those when you take the plant out anyway, and that’ll be a setback. Look for the one that balances healthy foliage with firm white roots inside the pot.  

The soil should be firmly against the pot walls; if there’s a gap, the plant’s been dried out completely and then revived. Might not be as healthy in the long run as it looks now. Brown edges or tips on leaves would suggest the same thing.  

Take the healthiest plants home and give them good lives. There’s no point in paying live-plant prices for compost. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.