There you are, chomping at the bit to exist outside capitalism, so utterly once and for all convinced that money is an illusion perpetuated only by our flimsy belief in its power. Materialism and mindless consumption of the notion of consumption itself has gotten way out of hand, and if you can just go back to the land and grow your own food you can help reset the entire broken life-deprecating system we’re all stuck in, or at the very least live outside of it yourself.

And I love this for you. But how do you get there? Well, first you have to know how to grow food (OK, maybe first you need capital and obtaining that in the first place is becoming an ever more impossible endeavor in this wretched inequitable world we dwell in), and to do that you have to plant seeds. But if you’ve never grown seeds, it might be best to use plants someone else has already germinated and taken care of first, because growing seeds is an endeavor in its own right. And in order to do that, you have to spend money, finding yourself back in the same pit of capitalist despair that you are hoping to escape.

Or maybe you just love going to the garden center to buy a new house plant once every few weeks. Either way, if you’re reading this now, purchasing already born plants of some shape or size is inevitably a facet of your present or future reality. And knowing what to look for in a good plant is a worthy skill to have, whether you intend to grow acres and fix the world, or place a single monstera in the sunny little corner of your living space to fix its feng shui.

Size Matters

The biggest mistake plant shoppers make is angling for large plants over smaller ones. I understand the intrinsic desire to have something large over something small, and garden centers understand this also. A plant in a five gallon container will cost significantly more than a plant in a one gallon container. But truly, as soon as you move (most) plants from a small container to a large container they will grow faster and fill that space. Plants are like fish in an aquarium: They will grow to the size appropriate to the habitat they’re given. At least this is the case when they are fed appropriately.

Unfortunately, many plant sellers will overfeed their plants with fertilizers to maximize their growth potential in a smaller container. This creates a product that is significantly easier to sell, but also creates a three-fold problem for the eventual consumer. First, the plant is likely to become root bound, which is to say its roots have fully stuffed the container and the soil, stunting potential growth for the plant in both its current and future homes. Second, the plant has grown dependent on being fed a large amount of (likely inorganic) fertilizer on a regular basis, and once it is transplanted and in your care, will be dependent on a similar feeding schedule and will have trouble transitioning to its new home. Finally, especially in the case of annual vegetables and herbs, oftentimes if they’re filling out the container they’re in, they are already well past their life prime, and you’re not going to get nearly the eventual yield from them that you would have had you brought them home when they were small and still excited to grow in larger environs.

Don’t Judge a Plant by its Cover

Actually, do judge a plant by its cover. But do not judge a plant poorly just because it has a few old yellowing leaves. It is a natural part of every plant’s life cycle to drop its older leaves so that it may favor new growth. So, yellowing on a plant’s lower leaves is perfectly natural. Do not let it scare you away. That said, it is a great idea to check for new growth on a plant—maybe the best idea of all, even. The plant you want the most, regardless of species, is the one with fresh new small leaves budding out of the top or the sides. Looking for new leaves is a special fun treat to partake in with any plant, whether you own it or not. Those leaves are a harbinger of plenty of fresh growth to come. As such, focus on what is being gained, not on what is already lost.

Use the Budding System

We tend to gravitate towards plants that are producing flowers or fruit, and that makes sense, because we are inherently attracted to the beautiful flowers and delicious food that plants share with us. However, whether we are talking about a large citrus tree you hope to grow for years to come or a tiny annual pansy, purchasing a plant that is budding but not yet blooming or fruiting is absolutely more ideal. A plant with buds is not only on the verge of giving you the goods, but is also still capable of drawing energy from the soil in its new home, of expending its energy to expand its root system, meaning increased potential for more buds, more flowers, more fruit. If the plant is already fruiting or flowering, it means it is late in its life or seasonal cycle and is focusing all of its energy on reproductive functions, i.e. fruits and flowers, as opposed to growth.

Don’t Let a Few Nibbles Bug You

Honestly, a little bit of damage from an insect can sometimes help a plant grow, triggering growth hormones and immune systems and the things that make for strength and character. A garden center completely devoid of any insect damage anywhere is a likely sign that they spray potent pesticides around to manage bugs, and to me, this is scary. Don’t get me wrong: Pest management is necessary and inevitable, but targeted care with organic products is always best, especially when we’re talking about treating the things we’d like to eat. So, if you see a little bit of damage on a plant, don’t write it off right away. Check the undersides of the leaves and see if there are any actual critters around. If so, you should probably leave it be, as it may be sick and dying and could become an unknowing vessel that will bring future havoc to your garden. But many well taken care of plants will have experienced some interaction with insects in their lives, and a few nibbles will often only make them stronger.

Mayhaps someday you will collect all of your own seeds and live entirely off the grid and all your houseplants will be grown from cuttings gifted to you by your economics ascendent peers. But until then, I hope you can come to terms with living inside our flawed money system long enough to put these best methods into practice, so that your personal emperor-less empire may thrive well into the future.

If you’ve got questions for the Dirt Nerd, feel free to email ian@hotplantsnursery.com or visit @hotplantsnursery.