Buying plants Gardening Houseplants

How to Buy Houseplants

Photo: Dimaberlin, depositphotos

Thinking about going on a houseplant shopping spree? These tips may help!

By Larry Hodgson

I rarely get far into winter before I start frequenting local garden centers. I feel the need to soak up a bit of humid air and bright sunlight in a tropical greenhouse … and while I’m there, of course, I check out the houseplant section. And mostly likely come back with a brand-new plant. That’s pretty typical, I think.

But how to you choose a plant? What things about a plant say this one is a keeper, that another deserves a place in my home, yet another is best left on the shelf?

Here are a few tips:

Where to Shop?

You can shop for houseplants online. In fact, that’s sometimes the only way of obtaining a special plant you really desire. If so, you have to trust that the merchant will make a good choice and send you a quality plant. Most do. In fact, I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem with poor quality plants … but then I only order plants from companies that seem trustworthy, usually ones that have been around for a few years and other gardeners have recommended.

Delivery seasons for houseplants vary. Most nurseries will only ship during the warmer months, but some do stop in the heat of summer.

Woman purchasing a houseplant.
Most people find buying plants in person much more enjoyable than buying online. Photo: Jim Filim, depositphotos

I must admit, though, that I prefer shopping for plants in person. There’s just something very agreeable about hovering over a table of luscious plants and picking just the one for your needs.

Garden centers are generally the most reliable places to buy houseplants locally. They know how to care for plants, so you can be sure the plant is being well maintained. And you can get actual specific advice from an employee. On the downside, the plants are usually more expensive than in big-box stores.

Houseplant boutiques. Almost unheard of a decade ago, they are everywhere today. They often offer the latest plants and plants of top quality, at that. But yes, they can be very pricey.

Specialist nurseries, ones that deal strictly deal in indoor plants, sometimes specific categories like orchids or succulents, often have the best choices and offer quality plants. If you’re lucky, there’s one not too far from where you live, but I’ve been known to travel hours and stay overnight to get to a really good houseplant nursery. They’re the kind of place where I tend to fill half my car with plants, so make sure you don’t have much on your credit card before you head out!

Big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot bring in truckloads of houseplants at very reasonable prices. However, they don’t know houseplants and rarely give them more than very cursory care. The result is that the plants decline quickly and so soon become second-quality plants that you won’t find easy to recuperate. And insects and diseases spread there unhindered, as there is no one there to remove infected plants. It’s best to try and buy plants there within the first few days after the shipment arrives in the store … and make sure you put their plants into isolation!

The least likely place to find healthy houseplants, though, are supermarkets. They don’t seem to give their plants any care whatsoever, so the decline is lightning fast. I’m not saying you can’t pick out a great plant bargain every now and then, especially if there has been a recent arrival of new plants. However, most of the time, the plants you purchase there decline very quickly once you bring them home.

Analyze Your Growing Conditions

Illustration showing houseplants growing near a large window.
What kind of growing conditions can you offer the houseplants you buy? Ill.: Merfin, depositphotos

Before you buy a houseplant, you should consider whether you can supply the conditions it will need to thrive. Can you provide bright, intense light? (That’s what most plants prefer.) High humidity? (Ditto!) Acceptable temperatures? (Most plants sold as houseplants are adapted to warm temperatures, the kind we keep in our homes, but there are exceptions that need cool conditions, especially in winter.)

And enough space too, as some plants become huge over time.

True enough, you’ll find houseplants adapted to lower light and drier air, but you have to know ahead of time that this is the type of plant you need.

Picking the Right Plant

So, you’ll be heading off to shop for plants. What do you need to consider?

Houseplant label
Labels sometimes exaggerate plant tolerances, but can still be a help in choosing plants. Photo: greenlifebyimmij.com

Check the label. Many plants have one with cultural information: light needs, watering needs, dimensions, etc. often in the form of symbols. That can help guide your choice. I must admit that the information on plant labels is often exaggerated (the goal seems to make the plants seem easy to grow in order to boost sales), but at least it can be a start.

Ask the nursery employee for advice. Either in choosing a plant to suit your needs or to confirm the plants you have chosen are likely to adapt to your conditions. Garden centers and nurseries often have a houseplant specialist who really knows their plants. Their advice is far more realistic than what the plant label says.

Give the plant a once-over. Is it symmetrical? Well furnished in foliage? Does it have a pleasing shape?

Pot of coffee seedlings. Sold as a “plant”, the seedlings will soon start to go downhill unless they are either thinned or divided. Photo: mydomaine.com

Beware of pots jammed full of seedlings. They look nice and full, but then decline due to overcrowding, so aren’t always the best choice. (You’ll find information on that in the article Keeping Houseplant Clumps Alive.)

You need to be the judge, but try to compare several plants to find the one that suits you best.

Woman inspecting plant in nursery.
Inspect the plant carefully before you purchase it. Photo: Wifesun, depositphotos

Check the plant carefully. Give it a thorough look over: leaves (top and bottom), stem, etc. Look for damage and, especially, insects, the latter often hiding at leaf axils. Pests may be visible as small moving creatures, but you can also recognize them by damaged leaves, little bumps on stems or foliage, sticky sap on leaves or tiny webs.

A single broken leaf is one thing, but several damaged leaves, brown markings, wilting of any kind, rotting leaves, etc., not to mention insects: those are all things you should avoid. In fact, if you spot insects, you might want to forgo buying any plants from that store and certainly, at least, from that particular bench.

Check the soil. Unless the plant is a succulent, the potting mix should be slightly moist. Sniff the soil. If it smells like a rotting potato, there is likely rot taking place out of sight underground. Look too at the drainage hole. If roots are coming out, it is likely underpotted. That isn’t a total no, as you can always repot the plant into a bigger container at home, but are you really ready to repot so soon?

Once you have decided on a plant, ask the store employee if you can remove it from its pot to examine the root system even more carefully. A good nurseryperson would say yes and show you what to look for. That would include wraparound roots (a sign the plant has been underpotted far too long!) and soil mealybugs.

Ceramic pots with no drainage hole.
If the plant has no drainage holes, it will make a poor purchase. Photo: audreyslittlefarm

Prefer pots with drainage holes. If possible, avoid plants sold in pots with no drainage hole. Overwatering them is too easy to do and they may already be starting to rot, sight unseen, in the store. You don’t want that!

It’s not that it’s totally impossible to grow a plant in a pot without a drainage hole, but it’s simply much more difficult and the long-term success rate is shockingly low. Read The Delicate Art of Watering Pots With no Drainage Hole for information on attempting to keep a plant alive in just such a pot.

Orchid in a grow pot inserted into a cachepot.
Orchid growing in a clear plastic grow pot, with drainage holes, inserted into a cachepot. Photo: A. Laine, durhammastergardeners.com

Do check to see, though, to see if the plant isn’t really just in a cachepot rather than growing in a pot with no drainage hole. Some plants, notably orchids but others as well, are planted in a “grow pot” (a plain or transparent pot with a drainage hole), but that pot has been set inside a decorative cachepot. That’s perfectly acceptable, although you might want to use a larger cachepot once you get the plant home, as the ones sold with plants are often such a tight fit you you can’t readily see if there is an accumulation of water in the bottom.

Avoid weak plants. My local supermarket has a smart way of selling dying plants: when they see their plants declining in appearance, it lowers their price! Do not buy a weak plant with the idea of trying to save it, not matter how inexpensive it may be. It almost never works!

Prefer buds to bloom. If you’re buying a flowering houseplant, prefer one with lots of buds starting to show color, but only a few open flowers*. If the plant is in full bloom, its season might already be nearly over. Yet, if the buds are still green, there’s a chance they won’t mature when conditions change radically. But flower buds that start to show their final color almost always mature fully when you get the plant home and that will ensure the longest possible season of bloom.

*There are a few exceptions to the “buy the plant in bud” rule. Notably, it’s better to buy chrysanthemums and poinsettias when they are in full bloom… but it applies to just about every other plant.

Avoid buying in winter. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but most plants need time to adapt to new growing conditions. They’ll do best if you buy them in spring, summer or early fall, when indoor conditions are usually good. The low light and dry air so common in homes in winter can make for a tough adaptation for the new plant.

I must admit I do buy houseplants in the winter: sometimes I find a plant just so wonderful I can’t resist! If you do buy a plant off-season, you may need to put your new houseplant inside a clear plastic bag for the rest of the winter once you get it home. That way, it will have the equivalent of greenhouse conditions and won’t have to cope with dry air.

Plants wrapped in plant sleeves.
A paper plant sleeve is a good start, but you might want to double bag these plants by putting them inside a plastic or paper bag for the trip home. Photo: aaagreenhouse.com

Make sure the plant is well protected from the elements before you leave the store, especially in winter. I was horrified to see the local Ikea sending people home with houseplants totally uncovered on a freezing day (-6˚F/-21˚C) in February last year. Apparently, they simply don’t wrap plants, ever. That’s unacceptable. If the store doesn’t wrap their plants carefully before sending them off, especially during the colder months, they shouldn’t be selling live plants! In really cold weather, in fact, ask if your plant can’t be double bagged: a bag inside a bag, each one sealed to keep cold air out.

When You Get Home

When you have brought your plant home, there are a few things you can do to help it adapt to the change. You’ll find a resume in the article 10 Tips on Caring for a New Houseplant.

Have a great plant shopping trip!

2 comments on “How to Buy Houseplants

  1. Most of my houseplants at my former home were landscape stock that I brought from Southern California. The big Ficus benjamina were #15 specimens that were originally purchased to patch a gap in a hedge, but were surplus. They would have cost more than $100 if I were to purchase them as houseplants. Several plants that are houseplants here live in landscapes there.

  2. I love the sansevieria trifasciata, & all it’s cousins. When I was in Nicaragua, they grew in peoples yards.
    I was amazed, then I remembered, it never freeze in Central America.
    Sansevieria trifasciata or snake plant is hard to kill, harder than many cacti I have had & it blooms when it is root bound.
    “Did you know that Sansevieria can flower? Now reclassified into the Dracaena genus, Snake Plants or Mother-in-Law’s tongue, do in fact flower! ”
    https://www.ohiotropics.com/2021/04/21/sansevieria-flowers-snake-plant/

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