The 5 Things I Do When Buying a New Plant, According to a Plant Writer

published Apr 17, 2023
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If you’re a plant-lover, you might have found yourself in a situation like this: You just “pop by” your local plant shop or garden nursery without any plans to buy a new plant. But before you know it, you’re walking down the aisle and that one special plant catches your eye. Then you’re picking it up and admiring how beautifully unique it is before putting it in your cart. And then this happens with another plant, and then another, and then suddenly one plant has turned into five or six new glorious plants ready to go home with you.

I’ve been in this position hundreds of times over the years, and as a horticulture writer I’m now hardly ever surprised by it. However, that doesn’t mean I’m immune to mishaps — and after making my share of mistakes over the years, I’ve now solidified a go-to game plan for those unexpected plant shopping sessions. After all, the worst possible outcome is to bring a dying, pest-infested houseplant home only to have it affect the rest of your collection! Here’s my proven system for protecting my existing plants, my pets, and my wallet.

Have some working knowledge of your home’s light situation.

Smart plant shoppers know what their collection looks like and what areas of their home have a potential for another plant. They also have some idea of what the light looks like in those areas. While a little of this process is trial and error, you probably can discern whether a particular spot is mostly shady or mostly bright.

With that information on hand, you’ll be able to run down the light and care requirement checklist in your head of any plant you’re eyeing. (Depending on the type of plant you’re looking to buy, there might be some wiggle room here.) Make sure to read the care requirement label on the plant in question; if there isn’t one, ask a sales associate for help on the plant’s name and what kind of light it needs. If they don’t know, the internet will be your friend! Google the name of the plant or take a photo of it and use a plant ID app like PictureThis.

If you’re like me, and have animals at home, the most important question you might need to answer could be “Is this plant pet-safe?” Many popular houseplants are toxic to cats, dogs, and other pets, and they’re usually not properly labeled with warnings. You might even get misinformation from the store you’re buying it from. So be careful and do a bit of asking around if you know you have a nibbly pet at home. 

Look for signs of distress in the leaves.

After you’ve established that the plant can be a fit for your home, it’s time to get close — like, really close. Do the leaves seem firm? If the leaves are droopy or discolored, or have crispy edges, the plant could be showing signs of distress. The same goes with mushy or rotten stems, which are usually signs of temperature damage or overwatering. If the plant has any of those visible signs, it’s better to put it back and pick another option.

Check for pests.

Thoroughly checking a plant out before bringing it home is a lot less time-consuming than having to treat your entire houseplant collection for bugs. Check the undersides of the leaves to make sure there are no pests or signs of pests. There shouldn’t be any crusty residue or dark-colored specks. Check the stems, too! If there are small holes in the plant tissue, it could be from pest damage. Common houseplant pests can look like anything from tiny pieces of fuzz to large black dots. Their damage can be visually deceiving, too. Spider mites have little webs and mealybugs leave behind a secretion that looks and feels like sugary sap. Thrips, possibly the worst houseplant pest to get rid of, damage leaves so that they’re tissue-paper-thin. 

Check the pot and the soil.

Before buying anything, I always make sure that the root system is healthy. Use your finger to check the soil, making sure it’s not overly saturated with water. Then, take a look at how high the soil looks in the pot — does it seem low? If so, it might be compacted. You should also look for roots in unexpected places, like popping out the top of a pot or spilling out of drainage holes. That indicates the plant has seriously outgrown its pot.

If you don’t see roots coming out of the grow pot, gently slip it off for a closer look. Healthy roots are firm and usually white-ish in color. Dealing with rotted or damaged roots can become a huge issue in the long run, and doctoring a plant back to health is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

Once your plant is home, separate it from the others.

After you get your new plant home, it’s a good practice to quarantine it from the rest of your collection for a few days. That helps ensure that even if you missed any signs of pest or illness, you’re not infecting your other plants. We all live on the edge sometimes, but in my experience, it’s better to be safe than sorry! 

One thing that many people forget is that you can still ask questions even after you buy a plant. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the nursery or shop where you picked up your new houseplant for care tips or to troubleshoot any signs of distress. You can always turn to the internet, too. Apartment Therapy’s Encyclopedia of Houseplants is a great resource for general care information; if you’re looking for specific advice regarding possible issues with your houseplant, it’s helpful to connect with an online plant community. Options abound on Facebook and Reddit, including some groups such as r/plantclinic that are specifically dedicated to helping diagnose illnesses and other plant problems.

These five steps have helped me ensure my success not only in bringing home a healthy plant, but also in making sure that plant stays healthy and happy. Shop like a horticultural writer, and you’re more likely to see your new plants thrive, too.