How to Source Healthy Plants for a Healthy Garden

Posted by on Jul 9, 2015 in Grow Better Greens Podcast | Comments Off on How to Source Healthy Plants for a Healthy Garden

In Episode 2, we answer a question about shopping for plants that are better bets for producing higher quality vegetables in your healthy garden. What do these plants look like? How are the raised? And where can you, the health-focused gardener, find them?

You can listen, or download for later here:

How to Source Healthy Plants for a Healthy Garden

What better plants look like3:30
The importance of saving space6:06
The best place to buy plants7:30
The worst place to buy plants9:14
What about online sellers?12.13
Veggies that you should never buy as plants
Find out your gardening zone 17.30

How to Buy Better Plants

Wow – the fun part is finally here! You’re ready to choose all of the fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers that you’d like to grow and I can guarantee you this one thing:

You’re going to overdo it.

No matter if they’re gifts from friends and neighbors, farmers’ market buys, or found behind some dumpster, you’ll likely have too many plants on hand to actually plant them all in the space that you have. I’m telling you this not to make you feel bad or wasteful, I’m telling you this because in my opinion, over-planting is the easiest mistake someone with visions of a healthy garden can make.

Crowding plants forces them to divide up their resources, often in a manner that leaves every single one of them ‘short’ on their nutritional needs.

I can grow ridiculously abundant plants that yield tons of delicious fruits, but only if I give them the proper amount of room to grow. I’ve never seen abundance result from crowding plants together, as is done in programs like Square Foot Gardening. Further, I’ve never gotten high Brix readings from crowded plants.

One of the easiest ways to end up with weak, stunted plants that are covered with pests and disease is to plant too densely.

So, I urge you to think about what you’d really like to grow and make sure that you save some room for it. Most of us want it all, all the time (myself included) so this is a major lesson in practicing restraint. One way to do this, especially if you’re limited to just one or two beds or planters, is to apply the 80/20 Rule by asking yourself this question:

“Which veggies do I find myself running to the store for the most often?” “Which veggies do I think taste best freshly picked?”

Knowing that you may be limited to a smaller variety of vegetables, it’s possible that you’ll end up growing a few basics and buying the rest.

My advice is to grow your own super-healthy greens at home, and supplement the rest of your salad ingredients locally.

What Better Plants Look Like:

One of the easiest ways to start a garden is by ‘transplanting’ plants that someone else has already started. Unfortunately, it’s also the easiest way to start a sick garden! Don’t worry though, I’m going to help you figure out which plants are the safest options for you to purchase.

First, let’s talk about what to look for in a transplant, also called a seedling or a ‘start’:

  • Short and stout, instead of tall, spindly, skinny and ‘leggy’– the short height indicates that the plant has been cared for consistently and has had uniform exposure to light. Spindly looking plants have developed that way because they’re constantly reaching and searching for the light – not good at all!
  • Green or dark green leaves are best – plant leaf color can tell you a lot about the nutritional needs of the plants. Your goal is to source plants without any nutritional needs in the moment – they should be totally content. So, you don’t actually need to identify what’s missing in their diet through the colors you see, you just need to buy the ones that look deep green. Avoid yellow, brown, light green, white, or strangely mottled leaves.
  • Perfect looking plants are best – avoid curled leaves, dry and desiccated leaves, drooping or wilted leaves, scratched or chafed leaves, and anything else that makes you think “if I were shopping for a photo shoot, I wouldn’t choose this one”.
  • 4 inch pots! Plants that are started from seed in 3 to 4 inch pots have plenty of room to develop their roots without coiling around the container walls. This means that they are in the habit of searching wide and deep for nutrients! Larger pot sizes also increase the soil’s chances of receiving water whenever an employee with a hose passes by.
  • One plant per pot! Often times, we think we’ve scored the mother-lode when we see a bushy-green leaf-filled pot. Count those stems carefully though, as two, three or even twenty plants per pot will only grow into a tangled mess!

You’re after a super-healthy garden here, so go ahead and be picky!

Plant Sellers to Avoid:

Big box stores & garden centers. I know, this can be tough, especially depending on where you live but I think it’s best to steer clear of these plant sellers. Disease is rampant, care is inconsistent, and staff can be undertrained.

That being said, I worked at an awesome, locally famous garden center that sold only organic plants and employed expertsand I still wouldn’t recommend buying plants at the garden center for two reasons:

  • Most Garden Centers source their plants from a lot of different suppliers and disease will wind its way through, unavoidably.
  • The market demands that plants are made available really early on, well before outdoor temperatures are truly consistent. The Garden Center then becomes a holding area for young, stressed out plants.
  • Almost Every wholesaler whose plants are carried at the Garden Center also sell directly to the community, usually at the same or better prices. Why not buy from them instead? That way your plants only undergo the stress of a single car trip.

Plant Presentations to Avoid:

Six packs – small plastic cell trays that hold six of the same or a mixed variety of plants. These are almost always too far gone by the time you purchase them. The roots are usually ‘rootbound’, meaning that the roots are tightly coiled up with nowhere to go in their search for nutrients. When you see six packs with plants that are already bearing fruits – run the other way.

These plants are expressing themselves unnaturally because they’re guessing that this might be their only shot at reproduction; they will never grow big and strong in your garden.

Further, caring for six packs in a garden center is tough – saturating the soil of those little cell trays with water is difficult and inconsistent at best. You can practically bet the farm that plants in six packs won’t perform for you, especially if you’re trying to grow for health.

Four packs – way better than six packs, but still can be an issue depending upon the source. Many organic greenhouses/ farms do a nice job with these. You’ll just need to make sure that the plants still look small and stout and haven’t become too rootbound. Later in the season, when everything goes on sale, four packs are just as suspicious to me as six packs, as I know that they’ve maxed out their containers.

Best Bets for Sourcing Plants:

Look for 3 to 4 inch pots: many farms and greenhouses have started selling plants in these bigger-sized containers. This is definitely the way to go! Plants are much happier when their soil can hold water longer (think about how hot and humid a greenhouse can get – all of that water in the air has been sucked out of the plants and soil). I highly recommend purchasing plants in these containers and even larger if the season is somewhat underway – this means that the caregiver was wise enough to move the plant into a larger-sized pot to meet its nutritional needs.

Farms/ greenhouses: hands down, the best resource for buying plants. Farms need to start their own plants for the season and they also need money asap in the spring to pay for seeds, fertilizer, heat, amendments, and payroll. Selling transplants to home gardeners is a great way to pay for the expense of getting a jumpstart on their own crops. The upsides of buying plants on farms is threefold:

  • Plants raised in a closed environment without lots of other specimens moving through have a lowered risk of carrying disease at your moment of purchase.
  • Care is often consistent and implemented by someone with skills. If a farmer can’t raise decent plants, they’ve got big, huge problems.
  • Uniform heat and light. Unlike indoor grow lights, farms usually heat plastic greenhouses with propane, oil or wood pellets– you’re helping them to pay these heating bills. Plants raised in greenhouses are exposed to natural light, all of the time that it’s available, just as it occurs when the sun passes over throughout the day. That’s exactly what plants want.

You can find them alongside the farms that sell starts at your local farmers’ market early in the season. However, I would highly recommend that you ask both farms and greenhouses if you can visit their operation and make your purchases on site; that way you can choose from a wider variety of plants, including those that haven’t made the trip to and from market (stress-free!).

Don’t be afraid to call ahead and ask if you can purchase plants that have not left the greenhouse!

One great way to find farms and greenhouses near to you that offer these awesome plants is through the Local Harvest website. Enter your zip code and the word ‘plants’ into the catalog search box to see what comes up nearby:

You might find that some of these sellers have ‘open dates’ meaning that they won’t start selling plants until a certain weekend, usually because they know that although the public is ready way earlier, the plants prefer a more reasonable schedule. For some reason, the start date for plant shopping seems to be earlier and earlier every year, as we all scramble to get the exact varieties we want before someone else buys them all up!

Opening on the date when they can sell you plants at peak health is a true sign of an incredibly wise plant seller.

Online sellers: sometimes, you just don’t live near a farm! And now I’ve gone and freaked you out about big box stores… sorry. You do, however, have one other option and that is to buy your organic plants online. They ‘ll come to you all boxed up, usually shipped overnight , nestled in with those big, airy plastic bubbles and usually no worse for wear. You may find some limitations in terms of variety, but you may also find that you can get a deal on ‘sets’, such as ‘kitchen garden plants’ ‘Italian garden plants’, ‘Culinary herb garden plants’, etc…

Here are three great online options, depending upon where you live:

From the South:



Plants you should NEVER buy:

The following plants don’t transplant well and may just be a waste of your money. The good news is that they’re all really easy to grow from seed. If you’d like to give transplanting a try anyway, but be very, very gentle and try not to disturb the root systems when you set them in the soil:

Summer squash (zucchini, spaghetti, patty pan, yellow crookneck)
Winter squash (acorn, butternut, buttercup, pumpkin)
Beans, both climbing and bush varieties
Long-rooted plants, such as carrots, beets, radish, and parsnips

Thanks for reading my blog : ) I wish you much success in Growing Better Greens!