Any thoughtful discussion about organic gardening automatically centers on the issue of prevention. Preventing disease and insect issues at the very beginning will save you plenty of headaches later on in the process, and allow you to avoid using chemicals to keep your garden thriving. We go to great lengths to learn about our soil, select the right site, and research disease-resistant varieties. It is all for naught, however, if we unknowingly bring problems into our gardens as hitchhikers in newly-purchased plants. Luckily, it's easy to avoid most problems if you know what to look for.
Outward Appearances: Inspecting the Foliage and Stems
Closely inspecting the leaves and stems of your plants before you purchase them will reveal more than you might expect about its overall condition. If you see any of the following issues, put the plant back and select another.
- Yellowing Leaves: These are an indicator of possible pest or disease problems, or a nutrient deficiency.
- Wilted Leaves: This could be a sign of the plant being temporarily stressed by too little water, but it could also be an indicator that the plant has been neglected by nursery staff, and will not grow as well as it should.
- Signs of Insects and Diseases: Chewed leaves, sticky residues, webs, leaf or crown distortion, spots, and mushy foliage should all be immediate signals to put the plant back. You don't want to introduce any of these issues into your garden.
- Scars or Nicks in Branches of Woody Plants: These indicate that the branches or stems have been damaged at some point. Scars and nicks can become future sites of disease issues or plant weakness, if they aren't already.
- Spindly Growth: This indicates poor light conditions, that the plant has outgrown its pot, or that it hasn't been pinched or pruned properly. You want stocky, full growth when purchasing new plants of any type, whether they are annuals, perennials, vegetables, or woody plants.
- Poor Overall Color: If the color of a plant's foliage seems off at all, err on the side of caution and select another. Of course, you'll have to know what a healthy plant should look like, but you can obtain this knowledge easily by doing a little research ahead of time, or by comparing the plant to others of the same variety at the nursery.
Under the Soil: Inspecting the Root Zone
While the foliage can certainly tell you a lot about a plant's condition, it only tells part of the story. To determine the health of a plant, you also need to inspect its roots. Don't feel shy about popping plants out of their nursery pots during your inspection. Most nurseries don't have a problem with allowing their customers to fully inspect their purchases. If yours does, you may want to consider spending your gardening dollars elsewhere. If you see any of the following issues, choose another plant.
- Few Roots, Lots of Soil: This indicates that either the plant hasn't grown as strongly as it should, or that it was recently repotted. In either case, it is not the best candidate for your garden, since this means it is either in poor health or will suffer from increased transplant shock.
- Roots Growing Out of the Bottom of the Pot: This is not a good sign. This means that the roots have filled every available space in the pot, most likely by growing around in circles, and have tried to escape the pot to find water and nutrients. This plant will definitely suffer from transplant shock, and likely will never thrive in your garden.
- Weeds: We work hard to keep weeds out of our gardens. It makes no sense to bring them in with new plants. In addition, they are robbing your plant of water and nutrients, and indicate that the nursery staff hasn't cared for the plant as well as they should.
- Very Dry Soil and Rootball: If a plant's roots have thoroughly dried out, there's a good chance that it's on its way to being a dead plant. Unless you're purchasing a succulent or very drought resistant plant, bypass any that have a dry root ball.
How Important are Organic Plants?
Whether you buy organic plants or not will be as much an issue of availability as of principle. Vegetables, herbs, and fruits are all fairly easy to find as organically grown starts, and, ideally, that is what you'll buy for your organic garden. You'll avoid exposing yourself and your family to the chemical pesticides and fertilizers that conventionally grown plants are laden with, which is generally the reason most people start gardening organically in the first place.
Once you get into ornamentals, it's hard to know whether they've been grown organically. Generally, there won't be any information stating how they were grown; in this case, assume they have been grown conventionally, since most ornamentals for retail are still grown this way. There's nothing wrong with these plants, and the amount of chemicals they'll introduce into your garden will be minimal. Given a season or two, the chemicals will break down. The only issue with conventionally grown plants being introduced into an organic garden is a matter of resilience. Organic gardens are in balance with nature: the plants can fend for themselves, because they are growing strong, in healthy soil, and have adapted to the conditions. A conventionally grown plant, especially if it's not a disease resistant variety (which you may want to reconsider purchasing in the first place) may struggle somewhat after it has depleted its chemical protection. Watch these plants throughout the season, and be vigilant about handling any insect or disease problems as soon as they pop up.
Another issue with the conventional vs. organic plant debate is that of voting with your gardening dollar. If both an organic choice and a conventional choice are available, purchase the organic one if possible. This will let retailers know that there is a demand for more organically-grown plants, both edible and ornamental.
By following these simple guidelines, you'll be sure that any plant you fall in love with at the nursery will be a healthy addition to your garden.