Things to avoid when buying a plant

Bugs and other pesky things

When looking for a plant to buy, avoid any plants that have fuzzy-looking white spots on them. These spots can mean you plant has woolly aphids, scales or mealybugs — all of which are harmful to your plant. Even though they usually do not kill the plant, these pests suck the phloem from your plant and make it weaker. (The Phloem is food-conducting tissue located in the stem of a plant.) (1)

If the plant has aphids you will be able to see honeydew on the plant. Honeydew, the excreted waste of aphids, can be identified as a sticky substance on the leaves or stem of the plant. Most adult aphids are easy to get rid of by simply using a strong stream of water to rinse your plants off. Aphids usually give birth to live young females and these young females are already pregnant with the next generation. Aphids do over wintering as an egg and those are harder to detect and get rid of.



Photographer: Whiney Cranshaw, Colorado State University

 Scales are a lot like aphids but they are much harder to get rid of, because the only time that you can spray them is when they are in what is called the “crawler stage” (2). The crawler stage is the only stage in which scales are mobile. If you have a plant with scales use a horticultural oil. An horticultural oil is a specific type of oil that is used as an insecticide that basically smother the insect. 



Mealybugs also produce honeydew, but unlike aphids and scales they are more mobile. It is extremely hard to get rid of them since, not only are they more mobile, but they cover their body in a waxy substance that protects them from sprays.




You will need to avoid any plant that has small holes in the leaves. These are called shotholes and are caused by flea beetles (1). Flea beetles can eventually totally destroy your plant. They can also carry numerous diseases that are harmful to plants.

One really easy thing that will help you to determine what plant to buy is appearance. If the plant looks wilted and the leaves seem to be limp or if the plant has a lot of brown or yellowing leaves, it might be infested by insects, or have a disease or a virus.


Now that you know what condition your plant is in, where to buy it, and what to look out for when buying your plant, let’s talk about what you will need to do for it right off the bat. Many plants that you buy are root bound, which means that there are more roots than soil in the pot, so you will need to repot it.

This brings up the question of what size of pot should you put it into, and what type of soil should you use?

The size of the pot will depend upon the size of the current pot that your plant is in. As a general rule, you only want to go to a pot that is about an inch and half to two inches bigger than your current pot. The pot that you choose should have a hole in the bottom of it for drainage. You should place about a half inch of rock or tiles in the bottom of the pot to allow for better drainage.

Soil is extremely important and while there are many different soil mixes available price is should not be the deciding factor. Soil not only provides support for the plant but it is also its source for nutrients and water. So what should you look for?

A good soil should have a fairly high amount of organic materials, should be light weight and not be sticky and clay-like. Clay-like soil tends to stick together and will not allow your plants to get sufficient air. Plants like to breathe too! Be careful not to get soil that has high amounts of manure because these tend to be higher in salts and can be harmful to your plant.


Clay soil                   Good soil 

 Clay soil                                         Good soil

Now that you have your pot and soil, take your pot with the rocks or tile in the bottom and fill about two thirds of the pot with your soil. Next, wet down the soil so that it is just damp to the touch. Carefully dig a hole in the soil. Take your plant and gently loosen the root ball, then place your plant into the hole and cover it just above the initial root ball. Don’t bury it.   Water the plant and put it in its new home.

(1) Cranshaw, Whitney. Garden Insects of North America. New Jersey: Princeton University Prees, 2004

(2) Cranshaw, Whitney. Pests of the West Revised. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1998



  1. Ratboy said,

    February 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Very informative information.

  2. Tyler W. Cox said,

    February 24, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    I’m always worried that I’m going to damage the plant when trying to loosen the root ball, do you have any suggestions on how to do so without breaking off bits of root?

  3. Stacy Weaver said,

    February 25, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Hey! My mom has a plant that has these little brown looking scales on it. I don’t know how to get rid of them with out killing it. Is there anything I can use on it that is also pet safe?

  4. Marianna Brandt said,

    February 26, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    WOW!!! A lot of very useful information in this. I might even buy a plant from a box store now that I know what to look for. It’s also nice to know what these plant pests are called. The pests that you described all seem to be on the plant itself. What about the ones that are in the soil and how do you get rid of them other than repotting? I’m sure that some of them would still be on the plant root even if it was transplanted. As for the potting soil, I’m assuming that the more expensive soil is the best way to go.
    Thanks for all of this helpful information.

  5. Jami Cox said,

    February 27, 2008 at 12:42 am

    I did not know that mealy bugs secreted protective wax. Smart bugs.

  6. marty said,

    February 27, 2008 at 8:06 am

    Great info. I am now an expert on what to avoid when buying plants.

  7. Jim said,

    February 29, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Really good information about plant pests…Be nice if there were none! Thanks for the helpful information.

  8. missybrandt said,

    March 3, 2008 at 12:58 pm


    In response to Tyler’s question of February 24, 2008
    To loosen the root ball without damaging the plant, stick your finger down beside the root ball then tilt it underneath the roots and gently scoop the plant out.

    In reply to Stacy’s inquiry of February 25, 2008:
    I would recommend using horticultural oils since they are pet friendly. You can find horticultural oils in a garden shop.

    In response to Marianna’s inquiry of February 26, 2008:
    I think your best bet would be to repot your plants, but I would recommend washing the roots off with a gently stream of water before placing the plant in the new soil.


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