YOUR GARDEN THIS MONTH - Getting to the root of a plant purchase

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Well there have been a handful of nice days this month. However, on one of those days I was dying of heat while installing a landscape. It must have been at least 55 degrees.

Most of you still seem hesitant to get outside and do much plant shopping, and I can certainly understand why. When you are ready here are a few tips about buying plants.

Look for plants with new growth. Leaves should be green and healthy in appearance. If the soil at the top of pot looks hard or solid, slip your finger into the soil - there should be some give. If not, the plant may be root bound.

Slip the plant out of the pot. The roots should be white, not brown, and they should be working their way around the sides and bottom of the pot. Root bound plants have only a little soil and a lot of roots, and the roots will be somewhere between hard to impossible to loosen.

Should you buy a root bound plant?

You can, but you must either loosen the roots, or slice through them in several places with a knife or sharp tool before planting. Slicing through the roots tells the plant that it can grow beyond the shape of the pot its been in. I have seen root bound plants, that were not sliced or loosened, dug up from a landscape a couple years later still looking as if they just came out of the pot.

Too few roots can also be a concern, because the plant may not have enough root structure to take care of the plant during hot spells or limited water conditions.

With the recent overnight freezes, look at the upper growth of vegetables and annuals. Cold temperatures will damage or discolor the these plants.

Vegetables and annuals that show damage on top will take additional time to recover before they begin to grow. Our cool spring has already put these plants behind schedule, you don't need any additional delays.

Yellow leaves mean a plant is usually stressed either from too much water or a lack of water.

Look for signs of bugs or disease. Most bug problems show up as holes on the edges or middle of lots of leaves. A couple of chewed up leaves is usually no big deal, but keep an eye on it at home for a week or two.

Disease is indicated by discoloring on leaves and branches. The most typical problems look like black spots or grey fuzz on leaves.

Plants with problems, that don't show signs of disease or pests when you purchased them, will usually reveal their hidden issues within a month, after that time period, the problems are more likely coming from your location. Returning the plant will not get rid of the disease or pests residing in your yard.

Trees and shrubs should have new growth or signs of budding on all the branches. Trees and shrubs with branches that show no signs of life, may have additional problems.

When buying a B&B (short for balled and burlap) shrub or tree, look at the string that binds the burlap around the roots. If it is nylon, look at the stem or trunk of the plant, the nylon should not be embedded into the plant. It is also important to remove the nylon ties before planting, otherwise it will girdle the plant and likely kill it in a few years.

Where should you buy your plants?

There are basically two options, the local nursery and the box store.

At the box store you will certainly find a bargain - beyond that, the box stores really offer no other benefit. Their staff rarely knows how to care for the plant. This means many of the plants begin to show signs of stressed within a week or two. Most of the staff know little more than what is written on the tag about the plants.

Box stores also tend to carry the same plants for all of their stores, this means their plants are not always hardy to our area.

The local nursery typically has a more knowledgeable staff. They know how to care for their product, reducing stress on the plants. They know the area and how the plants will perform for our weather conditions.

The local nursery can't compete on price, but they make up for it in knowledge. Buying a healthy plant, for the correct sun and weather conditions can translate into saving you time and money.

Bryce Rugraff is the owner of The Plant Company and Plant Company Landscaping in Walla Walla.

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