7 Tips for Choosing Healthy Transplants at the Garden Center

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If you are like most gardeners, you will purchase transplants for your garden at some point.

Whether you’re a new gardener and you buy all of your crops as transplants like I did my first year, or if you just choose a few to supplement the crops you plant from seed, there are some key considerations to keep in mind before you head to your local garden center or nursery.

Choosing Healthy, High-Quality Transplants at the Garden Center or Nursery

Before I get into the seven tips, I must urge you to consider the nursery or garden center itself. Local nurseries grow many of their transplants from seed right in their setting. This will often give you the best quality plants and best varieties for your region. And in my experience, local nurseries offer the best price. That’s why I always try to shop my local nursery first.

But if you choose to purchase from the garden center section of a big-box store, observe the conditions in which the plants are raised. Are workers present, tending to the plants? Feel the soil. Is it moist or have the plants been left to dry out? Even one day of inadequate water can stunt a plant.

Over the years I’ve noticed neglect but I’ve also bought plants at big-box stores that have grown exceptionally well in my garden. That’s why observation and attention to detail is your friend.

With this in mind, whether you purchase from a local nursery or a garden center (or a mixture of both like I often do), here are some tips to keep in mind before you head to purchase your baby plants.


Potted seedlings growing in biodegradable peat moss pots Purchase transplants at the right time of year.

If you buy too early and plant before it’s time, your plant will suffer stunted growth and could even die. On the other hand, if you buy too late in the year and purchase transplants that have sat in pots too long, they’ll have a harder time acclimating to the transplant and growing well.

Buy when you can plant them within a day or two.

Time your visit to the garden center so you can plant your baby plants in the ground the same day or within a couple of days. If this isn’t possible, keep them watered in a part-sun location (depending on how they grew in the nursery) until you can plant them in the ground.

child transplanting a tomato plant

Bring your phone and do some quick research before you buy.

You’ll have the best success if you know what you’re planting. Some local nurseries will only provide plant labels with no additional information. The tags on plants from big box stores will only provide basic planting instructions. Unless you are already familiar with a particular variety, you really need to know before before you purchase.

Pull out your phone and do some quick on-the-spot research. This small step will help you choose the variety that suits you and your garden best.

Look for these signs of the healthiest — and sickest — transplants.

Look for short, stocky plants with uniform, dark green leaves. Roots should be white and show vigorous growth but not so much so that they wrap up and down around the soil medium. When you see roots circulating the outside of the soil, they’re searching for water and nutrients — a sure sign of stress. This could be due to a lack of water (a common occurrence I see at big box store) or lack of nutrients (indicating they have outgrown their container and used up all the nutrients).

Don’t choose plants with fruit or flowers.

Vegetables that start forming flowers could be under stress. The stress causes them to want to reproduce seeds as quickly as possible. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes they’ve just been growing so long it’s time for them to produce fruit.

Either way, I recommend choosing plants without these flowers. Once you get it home, it will need to pour all its energy into acclimating to its new environment, expanding its roots, and growing more leaves — not producing fruit yet. If you must choose a plant with flowers, pinch them off so the plant can focus on making itself at home in your garden before transitioning into setting fruit.

Know how to identify problem plants.

Make sure the leaves aren’t wilted, curled, or spotted. This could indicate a disease, which not only could affect that plant but also your entire garden for even years to come. Check also for bugs, again, because you do not want to add pest insects to your garden.

cabbage transplants

Skip the clearance aisle at the garden center.

I love a bargain as much as the next person, but plants in the clearance aisle have outlived their stay in a pot and have a greater likelihood of being in stress. They will more likely struggle when you transplant them, and they will not produce as good of harvest as their healthier counterparts. Unless you’re an experienced plant doctor, skip these plants.

For more details on how to purchase the best transplants at the garden center, on this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, I dive much deeper into these seven tips.

Click here to listen:

What experience do you have in choosing the best plants at the garden center?

Confused on whether you should plant seeds or transplants? Check these posts:  Seeds or Transplants? Which to Grow? When to Plant? and 9 Vegetables You Should Only Plant from Seed

Hidden Signs of Struggling Transplants at the Nursery or Garden Center

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