How to Shop Wisely When Buying Seedlings or “Startings” – Orange County Register

By Jeff Lowenfels

Many gardeners don’t start all their plants from seed. We buy “starters”, or seedlings – nursery grown plants to transplant into our gardens and containers.

These are mainly annuals and vegetables in plastic cell packages of four or six plants each. Many people also buy starters in individual containers.

I take special care when buying my spring tees. You can’t go back and start over in the middle of spring or summer, and you don’t want to be disappointed because you bought plants that didn’t work.

So here’s a routine you might want to follow to make sure you get good plants.

It starts with the nursery you go to. Before buying, look around.

Does the place seem to grow their own plants or buy from wholesalers? Nurseries that grow their own spring starts usually take good care of them. Wholesalers are often responsible for the care of their plants at the outlets they sell to, and so care may not be as good on the retail side.

Make sure the plants have been properly watered. Each time a cell bundle dries out, the seedlings are shocked and take a long time to recover, if at all. You don’t want to see flats of withered plants. If there are a lot of half-dead plants sold for half price, or shelves of dry plants sitting in the scorching sun outside the store, it’s advice to buy elsewhere.

Then, before buying a cell pack, test the ground. (It’s okay, you have the right!) In addition to being damp, it should not be compacted, a sign of drying out. I even make sure it smells fresh.

I also check the drainage holes to get a gauge on the roots, so I know if I need to transplant the seedlings when I get home or even if they’ve become too rooty to buy.

None of this takes long because I know what a healthy plant looks like, and so do you. It is free from wind and sun damage. These take time to fix, and who wants to waste time growing?

Look for fungal or bacterial spots, and the plants should be free of insects and any pesticide smells (a bad sign indeed, on many levels).

When purchasing spring plants in cell packs, “healthy” means all plants in the pack. If one in a four-pack isn’t healthy, the others are surely not far behind. Plus, you get what you pay for.

I will leave a store if the plants are not labelled. I want to know the name of the variety, the color and the height of the plants. Labels help me get the same (or different) varieties next year, depending on this year’s results.

We always wonder whether to buy flowering plants. Some plants bloom all season, so it’s no problem if they’re already in bloom. Other plants, however, only bloom once and that’s it. You don’t want to buy a plant that collapses early in the season because it’s already ripe.

Personally, if there is a choice between buying plants that are already in flower and those that are not, I take those that do not have flowers. I’m the gardener and I’m supposed to produce the flowers for my gardens, not let the nursery do it on its benches.

Finally, remember that plants and impulse buying go together like the hand and the gardening glove. Always have a garden plan in mind when buying plants. It’s easy to make a simple drawing and list of plants. I keep mine on my cell phone. That way, it’s always with me when I stop at a crèche.


Jeff Lowenfels regularly writes about gardening for The Associated Press. His books include “Teaming With Microbes”, “Teaming With Fungi” and “Teaming With Nutrients”. He can be contacted at

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