PB296942 s Babingtonia

Buying Australian plants

A lot of people buy plants like they buy spinach - they go for the biggest bunch and the greenest, lushest leaves! This is a good strategy if you are going to eat the plants or feed them to the goat but not always the best one if you are intending to plant them in the garden.

I suggest that the aim is to buy a healthy plant which is a good example of the species and form you want; one which will transplant readily, grow and flower as quickly as possible and grace your garden for a long time. As with any purchase you also want value for the money you spend. Having bought many plants over many years for many dollars I am now able to pass on a few tips for successful plant purchasing.

I will assume that you have already decided on the species suitable for the spot in the garden you intend to fill. Of course if you go out and buy the perfect plant after reading this there is no guarantee that it will succeed. You still have to look after it until it is planted, plant it correctly in well prepared soil and give it proper care from there on, but that is another story.

Where do you get it ?

There are not specific standards for ornamental plants like there are for many other items we buy. A nursery accreditation scheme exists but its use varies across the country and it has not been implemented in the ACT as far as I know.

Of course it depends on where you live. Those living in or near major cities will probably have a range of choice. This will include the specialist native nursery, where a good range of plants will be available. Here you can expect information and assistance from staff. General Nurseries and Garden Centres may offer a section on native plants or the native plants may be located in the general section. Chain stores can offer cheap plants, but these could be from anywhere in Australia and whether they will do well in your garden will probably be anybody's guess. Plant Markets often have the same problem.

A major problem for native plant enthusiasts in the Canberra region has always been that much of the native plant stock is grown on the coast, brought to Canberra and sold with scant regard to the suitability of species, with little chance to harden off and with labels describing their performance on the coast. This problem still exists with a lot of the plants sold in chain stores or brought in for 'markets' from time to time. There has been some improvement in the availability of locally grown plants and in the labelling of plants sold in Garden Centres and Nurseries but there is still a long way to go.

Locally grown native plants are available at our sales and sales of the Australian National Botanic Gardens Growing Friends. We have a leaflet available which lists local growers of native plants. The Australian Native Plant Sale & Information Day is held at the rear of the Yarralumla Nursery on the first Saturday of the month. .


Some years ago ASGAP (The Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants) worked on plant labelling with the Australian Consumers Association and an article on this topic appeared in Choice magazine in April 1991. This article listed the following information as being essential on plant labels: Scientific name, Size, Habit (does it grow as a tree, shrub, low prostrate shrub, or ground cover?), Flower colour, Flowering time/period, Sun/shade requirements, Soil requirements, Water requirements, Specific tolerances/intolerances

We now include this information on most of the labels at our plant sales.

Checking out your plant

You have found your plant and you now have to decide whether to buy it.

Step 1. Check the label. Is the species, form and colour what you wanted? If the label lacks essential information ask for assistance and go elsewhere if you are not satisfied. Does the plant look right from your knowledge of the plant or like the picture on the label (if there is one) or the picture you saw in a book. If not find out why.
Step 2. Check the price. Do you want to pay this much? Remember that you might be caring for this plant for many years so it is worthwhile getting a good plant to start with.
Step 3. Check the size of the plant and the size of the pot. Prostrate and low growing plants excepted, the plant should be greater than half the height of the pot and less than three times the height of the pot. If it is smaller than this it is either immature or in the wrong sized pot. If it is bigger than this it is in the wrong sized pot or it is overgrown. Remember you are not buying spinach.
Step 4. Check the foliage. It should be green or whatever colour is right colour for the species. It should be healthy and free from discolouration. It should show evidence of new growth without being too soft and lush which would indicate too much shade and/or water.
Step 5. Check the mix. Look at the surface of the mix, it should be free of weeds, liverwort etc. Lift the pot and see how heavy it is. A very heavy pot indicates a dense mix which may have inhibited root development. A very light pot indicates either that the plant has been too long in the pot or the mix is too light and will dry out rapidly.
Step 6. Check the roots. Look at the bottom of the pot. If there are substantial roots protruding or if it looks like roots have been cut off reject the plant. Better root development is achieved in straight sided pots with large holes in the base and root training ridges down the sides. One of the major causes of plant deaths in the garden is the planting of plants which are root bound. They may die or blow over many years later from this cause. If you suspect that a plant might be root bound ask the nursery person to tip the plant out so you can inspect the roots. If they are unwilling to do this move on to another nursery.
Step 7. Check the choice. If the plant you want is available in pots of different sizes and is of the same quality in each size choose the smaller plant in the smaller pot. Experience has shown that the smaller plant will generally overtake the larger in a year or two and outstrip it from there on. The larger plant may be the best bet if you want to impress the estate agent next week!


All this might sound like a lot fuss but with a bit of practice it only takes a minute or two and it may save you a lot of work later on replanting the ones that were wrong or the ones that died.

[Geoff Clarke]