how to shop for plants with an expert’s eye, with holly scoggins

lilyrootsHSTAKE YOUR PLANT-SHOPPING to the next level this spring. No, not by spending more, but by arriving at the garden center with a new appreciation for where those plants came from en route there; why they cost what they do; what to look for on a label, and how to really examine them–and I mean examine–to be sure you’re getting the healthiest, highest quality. Hint: Don’t get distracted by the flowers; the roots are where the action is.

Our guide is Virginia Tech associate professor of horticulture Dr. Holly Scoggins, a herbaceous plant specialist and educator, who also teaches greenhouse management and ornamental plant production and marketing. She conducts research to help commercial growers of container plants get it right, optimizing inputs like water and fertilizer, for instance, or different kinds of growing media.

In other words: Holly Scoggins knows a well-grown plant when she sees one.

Because she apparently can’t get enough plants, Holly also operates a U-pick blueberry farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, blogs at The Garden Professors blog at extension.org, and contributes to the Professors’ popular Facebook page.

On my public-radio show and podcast I learned a whole new style of plant-shopping etiquette, and got over my sticker shock with the insights Holly provided. Read along as you listen to the Feb. 9, 2015 edition using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


listen/read: q&a with holly scoggins




Q. The kind of teaching you do can’t all take place in a conventional classroom. I hear what are probably tall tales about you terrorizing nearby big box-store workers when you and your students arrive and start unpotting plants to look at their root systems.  What happens on these outings?

A. It’s with my nursery-production class—and the students are also growing their own plants at this time, to sell at the plant sale. So they’re really tuned in to producing quality plants. They want to see what’s out there, so we do big box-store comparisons, and go to independent garden centers. I show them it’s OK to take a plant out of the pot.

It’s your right as a gardener to take a look at the root zone, and make sure it’s a well-rooted plant—that you’re not just buying a rooted cutting with a lot of media, or worse: an overgrown, rootbound plant. [Top of page, a well-rooted container of lilies.]

We look at the displays, the pricing, the maintenance of the plants, is everything watered…and they walk around with little clipboards, making notes. So yes, it does cause some consternation. I always try to find the manager first.

Q. For us gardeners, what is good garden-shopping etiquette? Is it really OK to unpot the plants?

A. Absolutely. That’s the engine for the plant. Everyone goes, “Ooh, it’s in flower!” but you’re not just getting the foliage and flowers. You need a great-looking root system, and need to make sure there aren’t bugs in there.

Sniff the rootball [laughter]: You don’t want some mushy, overwatered things with root rot going on; check one of the plants. Even in a cell flat of pansies, lift one out (if you can—if they haven’t been on the bench for too long to lift out).

At the same time, you’re looking for any pest or pathogens of the foliage, for instance for target-shaped spots that look like a virus.

Q. What is a well-rooted plant? Am I looking for the cell or pot to be filled with roots, but not overfilled?

A. Right. But if I really want that plant, I’ll even buy it if it’s rootbound [laughter]

Q. Me too, Holly.

A. Yes, let’s just get that out of the way. [Laughter.] I don’t always practice what I preach.

But you want to know that you can loosen up those roots when you plant it, and make sure there are not circling roots, or stuff coming out of the bottom of the pot. Often this is more an issue for shrubs and trees than perennials. Most of our perennials are pretty fibrous-rooted, but if the root mass is really dense and it doesn’t look like there is any media left in the pot, chances are it’s been sitting on the bench for a season or more, and rootbound. That’s not the highest-quality plant.

I like to reward growers and garden centers by buying their top-quality plants, and encouraging them to stock more like those.

Q. That’s really our goal: to look for the top-quality plant, and vote for more like it with our dollars.

I think what you said earlier—and what really gets me—is something I say a lot to people: I don’t want to buy what amounts to a cellpack-sized plant, a “liner,” in a gallon of soil. When I get it home, and go to tap it out of the pot, I don’t want to find only one little lump of root in the whole gallon or 2 gallons of soil.

A. You’re just shocked, and it happens to all of us. A lot of this happens because at big nurseries, there are the sales folks who are selling wholesale to the garden centers, and there are the actual growers, who are trying desperately to hold on to stuff until it’s market size. Sometimes those two factions don’t always agree, and the plants get sold out from under the growers too soon.

qr code.jprQ. I have a thing about labels. Labels have gotten big, bigger, biggest–making room for things like those QR codes your cellphone can read and such [above]. But is bigger really better? What information is most important to look for on the label to decide if the plant’s for you?

A. Horticulture in general has been a little late to the whole branding game. We’re the last frontier—everything else in our life is branded, and finally we’re just getting into it.

A lot of companies are really taking advantage of it to give more detail on cultural requirements, and some other seem to just take up a lot of space listing companion plants. I just throw that out as an example, because you usually can’t find what else they just said to plant with it, and they give you no reason why to plant them together.

And then they get into a lot of flowery descriptions, and the bigger photos.

There is a regional nursery in the mid-Atlantic that’s known for what they call “the big tag.” It’s a great marketing tool for small garden centers because it’s informative, and it’s got a lot a lot of stuff on it. It’s useful.

But when you get done with a big shopping trip, and you’ve planted everything out, and you’re left with all that plastic—a big wad of tags.

Q. Some of the label entries like “disease resistant” or “part shade” can be confusing, almost euphemistic to the untrained consumer. Disease resistant sounds a lot like it isn’t going to get any diseases. And “part shade” isn’t really clear, to my mind, either.

A. I don’t think people are using the QR codes much. Often it just links to a web page with the same information as on the tag—so it’s all about what’s on the back end of those QR codes.

As far as “part shade” goes, to me that means, “Plant it wherever you can.” In my scientific experience it means, “Stick it anywhere.”

It changes with where you are at in the country, too. I started gardening in Athens, Georgia, which is a solid Zone 7B now, and I’ve worked my way north and now I’m in the Arctic of Zone 6, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Even just that one zone–and I live in an elevation that’s maybe 5B—makes a huge difference. When I first moved here I flipped out that people have hostas around their mailbox in full sun—that could never happen in Georgia.

Of course I was also perplexed at frozen soil. “What? You can’t garden in February?”

And the disease-resistance thing: That’s pretty useless unless they specify what disease. There are some generally tough plants we know about that end up on the list of plants that deer won’t eat, and if a deer won’t eat it, it’s usually pest- and disease-resistant, too.

But I’d rather see tags that are more specific—though anything that says it’s powdery-mildew resistant just means it’ll get it a week later than the others.

Q. Like the bee balms, the Monarda.

A. Monarda is one of my favorite perennials, and I’ve grown many different varieties, powdery-mildew resistant or not. They all end up with it every August like clockwork.

Q. Let’s talk pricing. I know a lot of people get sticker shock when they see the price of some plants. A recent story you wrote for “Fine Gardening” detailed the whole life cycle of nursery plants, from in many cases a decade or more of research and development before they show up on the garden-center shelf. Can you give us the short version of what’s invested into a plant before it comes to market?

A. I don’t think a lot of gardeners realize the complexity of the system behind getting that plant there. And it depends on the plant, because if you’re shopping for basil at your local little greenhouse, they probably planted it from a packet of seeds and it was grown right there on the bench.

But if you’re looking for a shrub you saw in a magazine, like one of the new Color Choice flowering shrubs from Proven Winners, or some new Hydrangea or a compact Buddleia, or one of the new Heuchera

Q. …of which there are 10 million… [laughter]

A.  …then the supply chain is pretty complex. It all goes back to your breeder. That breeder may be independent, or may work in R&D for a company. And that can just take years, especially for woody plants: to get things to flower, get seeds, cross it, and all that. Traditional breeding is under-appreciated.

Then if they do come up with something new and promising, it will probably be picked up by a plant-promotion company, especially if it’s by an independent breeder that doesn’t have a marketing outlet. This is a new thing in our industry, but it’s great—and kind of like a sports agent for plants.

The breeder doesn’t have to deal with the trialing, and patenting—the plant-promotion company will trial it to make sure it does what it’s supposed to. They’ll help with the complicated patent process; most every new plant now is patented. If all goes well with that, they’ll come up with the marketing materials, to get the word out to garden writers, bloggers, consumers.

Then there are the propagative growers, the folks that are doing the propagation—producing the “plugs” and “liners.”

Q. So getting bigger numbers of this new plant, bulking it up.

A. They make all these little plants, and then they sell and ship them to a finishing grower, which could be a nursery or greenhouse. And those trays of liners are shipped out, and the growers put weeks or months or even years into producing a marketable plant.

Q. So we’ve got a lot of players—the breeder, the sports agent, the propagative grower–even before it gets to the local nursery–all of whom have to be compensated in the life cycle of this plant

A. And if the finishing grower is a wholesaler, it gets sold and shipped to the final retail location—a final step. It sounds like a complex supply chain, and it can stretch from one side of the country to another. But I don’t want people to think it’s an industrial complex. These are all businesses run by folks who love and adore plants. Very few people are getting filthy rich in this business.

Q. Since perennials are the area of your particular expertise, I have to ask: What are the perennials Holly Scoggins thinks are most overused?

A. I have a hard time with that—and part of it comes with teaching, because I always have to teach the basics. I don’t really think in terms of overused. I think in terms of bread and butter; these are things that are time-proven. I really don’t get my knickers in a twist seeing Leucanthemum ‘Becky’ or Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ everywhere.

Q. Good point.

A. I appreciate that they stood the test of time, and you can’t overuse perennials in my opinion.

I do hate monkey grass—Liriope—if that helps. [Laughter.]

Q. We’ll put that on the list!

What about perennials that are undiscovered/should be used more, then?

sporobolusheterolepisHHGA. Ornamental grasses. They are simply the most underused, overlooked sector of containerized perennials. There are so many awesome natives out there; the breeders are working on improving their habits.

But they’re never going to look good on a garden-center bench in May. They don’t have flowers—they’re just grassy. People are going to pass by not thinking about what their gardens are going to look like in August, September, October. I urge people to educate themselves about them—and they’re still beautiful even in the dead of winter. [Above photo: Sporobolus heterolepis, or Prairie dropseed, Holly’s favorite grass.]

Q. You hinted about the trend toward natives, but what else is popular, or in demand?

A. What growers want and what gardeners want are not always the same thing. [Laughter.]

Growers want ease of propagation; ability to ship plants on a rolling rack; compact varieties; and great bloom time, since nobody buys things that aren’t in flower. But there are some things that R&D folks are working on, such as sterility—especially with our non-native species, so we can enjoy them without feeling guilty that they will spread.

I think the interest in natives is going to continue—and that is the Wild West of plant breeding. We have so many native that we’re using in our garden that are just straight species or just one step away. So many improvements can be made, such as longer bloom time or compact habit, so that folks with smaller gardens can enjoy Joe-pye weed or the perennial sunflowers. There are improvements that can really help get more natives out to people and into their gardens.

Q. I’m looking forward to them, and I’m going to go out plant shopping before long and take things out of their pots and say, “Holly Scoggins said to.”

A. And if anybody gives you a hard time, give them my number.

Q. I’m giving them your QR code! [Laughter.]

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 19, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos courtesy Holly Scoggins; QR code and label from Proven Winners.)

  1. Vince says:

    Awesome. Holly has done talks at our Northern VA Master Gardeners training sessions. She is an excellent speaker and knows her stuff!

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t want to pay a premium prove for extra soil without roots extending into it. I want to say to the staff that the plant isn’t ready for sale yet, and needs a little more time on the bench. But they probably will hate me! :)

  2. Kassie Schwan says:

    So interesting! I’d love more insider-type info on how the nursery business works. I’ve wondered especially about the rise of marketing and branding, as Holly mentions. For example, 6-packs of annuals have pretty much disappeared, leaving the buyer with either 4-packs (if one can find them) or one slightly larger grown-on annual in its own pot. Also, years ago a prominent perennial catalog got its start selling “liners” of smaller plants so that gardeners could plant in multiples affordably. These liners aren’t offered anywhere anymore that I can find. (Holly also refers to the practice of dunking a smaller liner into a larger pot with extra dirt, which I have purchased at nurseries many times.) One more question: in England and Europe home gardeners can purchase trays of plug plants—has any company ever tried that here? Thanks, as always, for fascinating and useful info, Margaret!

    1. margaret says:

      I know some of the answers, Kassie, but let me get the expert details before I reply. Thanks for the keen interest and kind words.

  3. Karl Forester is also another one of my favorite ornamental grasses. I never imagined taking the plant out of the container at the store, but I’m going to step outside that comfort zone and do a lot more inspecting with the new found knowledge from this article. Thank you!

  4. Carol says:

    I have a better understanding now of rootbound- I have bought plants before where the roots needed to be loosened, but now I can determine better how rootbound a plant really is. Thank you.

  5. Great information, as always. Having been a commercial grower and now a landscaper I always look at the rootball! Late in season you’ll find many root bound plants and a decision to be made.
    I use native species whenever possible and never invasive plants. One thing that is so confusing is the group – cultivars. I have been to many lectures where the feeling is that cultivars manipulate the species to the point, sometimes, of removing the desirably traits necessary for habitat.
    Have you found this to be so?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Olivia. I think yo are talking about the trend toward developing “nativars,” as I hear them called. Any you make a good point: If they lose their essential traits in favor of some gussied-up aspects, that’s not the best direction, is it?

  6. Deborah says:

    Along with labels not being helpful, I have a thing about seed sellers not offering helpful info on their websites or packets! What zones? depth and time of planting? Etc, etc. Basics! Sheesh…. lovely interview. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Deborah; agree. I have come to really treasure the old-style nursery where the employees (owners, often) really know and have used each plant themselves–better than any label, to have them explain. Most tags are useless, to my mind.

  7. Holly S. says:

    Thanks so much for the kind comments, and I really enjoyed this interview with Margaret! I’ve always felt there’s a bit of disconnect between gardeners and the wonderful folks that “make plants happen.” Happy to shed a little light on the process.

    1. margaret says:

      With you to help connect the dots, Holly, it makes much more sense. Thank you again for this opportunity to talk, and I hope we do so again soon.

  8. Kathy Oburg says:

    Very much enjoyed your interview with Holly. Lots of useful info in easy-to-understand language.
    I also love the grasses and am glad to see they now have some compact varieties since I don’t have a lot of room. I also don’t have a lot of sun and it seems most grasses like sun. I’ve found a few that work & love them. I even have one planted next to a big blue hosta & it’s wonderful.
    Thanks, Margaret, for your wonderful newsletter. I very much enjoy your style of writing. Your enthusiasm even when conditions aren’t “perfect” is great to see.
    I’m also looking forward to bringing another friend to your garden in the Spring. So far I’ve seen it in Summer and Fall. Can’t wait to see your Spring bulbs.


  9. Mario says:

    Nice interview! I believe that this is an exciting time for gardening with all the new plant introductions together with increased interest in natives and exposure of the new perennial planting movement. Now to conquer the price discrepancies between big box stores and the independents. A whole other can of worms…

  10. Lindsay says:

    Great post and interview, and great insights on root-bound plants (I think I’ve been looking for the wrong thing), and thoughts on overused/ underused perennials that are not just the same two thoughts I see and hear in every single garden blog or magazine. I’d love to hear more from Holly!

  11. Monica Flint says:

    Please advise people of danger of buying plants from box stores (especially) where plants have been treated with systemic insecticides that can continue to kill bees, butterflies and other beneficial pollinators via toxic nectar & pollen long after the plants are in the purchaser’s garden. This is anti-nature!

  12. Dawn says:

    Great post… I always try to follow those tips when looking for plants. I also have a soft spot for the “loser” plants. I feel like it’s my calling to rehabilitate them, kind of like getting a shelter pet.

  13. It would be nice if garden centers started focusing on edible perennial and landscaping plants that also offer food value. In addition, for those that aren’t edible, they may offer some companion planting benefits(such as incect control, living mulch, living trellises, shade etc). Folks should try and get away from merely planting things for aesthetics or traditional looks and try to make their growing space beautiful AND productive.

  14. Dave says:

    I was wondering if you could tell me the name/type of grow containers shown in the first article on this page…how to shop for plants with an expert’s eye, with holly scoggins…they look a lot more sturdy than the ones I have been using. Really appreciate it, thank you, Dave.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dave. I wrote to Holly and asked her. Her reply:
      Regarding the comment – that’s an injection-molded pot. Most of the nursery pots we see (the “ribbed” kind) are blow molded – much lighter weight for shipping, but indeed flimsier. Probably a “Poly-tainer”. nurserysupplies.com carries a wide selection of all sorts of nursery pots, or they’re also available from any greenhouse supply wholesaler the reader may be using.

  15. Kay says:

    Great post… Little Bluestem is a favorite native grass that I grow, only 2-3 ft. tall so fits in most gardens. I am in the process of eliminating my Rudbeckia as it has developed fungal disease Septoria so it is time for it to go. Mostly natives in my garden.

  16. Diane says:

    Look so forward to your emails, Margaret! You always have such interesting information to share! Where can I find out more about natives for Indiana? Also, could you please fill me in on the “overused Rudbeckia”? It is one of my favorites with the sunny yellow color and long-lasting blooms. Thanks for any info you can provide. Happy Growing!

  17. Anna says:

    I second loving rudbeckia! I rely on it in my garden here in Minnesota. I love the bright, long lasting blooms- and if you leave the seed heads up through the winter, the songbirds rely on them for forage. It’s fun to watch the chickadees pluck out seeds from the seed heads that are barely poking out of the blanket of winter snow.

    I also love the suggestion of using more potted grasses- and prairie dropseed is a wonderful variety that can grow in most parts of the country without a fuss. You can’t go wrong with the wonderful Karl Foerster either. You see it everywhere around here, especially in commercial landscapes.

  18. Sandy says:

    Part Shade does not mean plant anywhere! I live in Southern California. If I plant it in the full sun, it will fry. I better make sure the poor plant gets shade during the hottest part of the day.

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