Shopping At The Garden Center

Okay, now that we have established that when you shop, go to the garden center, what should you be looking for once you get there?

It can be a bit overwhelming–in a really positive way–to be in a garden center in the spring. There are often acres of trees, shrubs, vegetables and beautiful flowers to look at–and never mind the fountains and wind chimes and statuary and all the other things that go int the garden! Of course you want it all! You’re supposed to!

And in most places, even places without really cold and snowy seasons, you have just come out of “winter.” Even in places where it doesn’t snow, “winter” is a time where plants are in a dormant state because of lower light levels. So once that passes, plants get revved up and it’s time to grow!

So now that you have exited the car and your sense are assaulted by glorious colors, often wonderful fragrance and happy sounds, what to do you?

Well, ideally you have come with a list. It’s not going to control all the madness of this happy place but it should keep you focused on your task at hand. Why are you there today? Is it for some new perennials? Are you replacing a dying tree? Or adding a tree or some shrubs? Maybe it’s time to get the vegetable garden started. Or perhaps you just need to fill a few containers. Or are you buying a gift plant?

Once you answer that question, there is going to be lots of signage to direct you. That doesn’t mean you can’t look, shop touch and even ask questions along the way.

When I worked at the garden center, lots of people came one or more times to explore before they purchased. We encouraged that. Especially if you are planting something major like a tree–or even a new garden–you’ll want to get that as right as you can the first time. Take your time.

And that’s another important point: if you are planting an entirely new garden, don’t expect to do that in a Saturday afternoon or you will be very bored with it in upcoming years. If you buy all your plants in one afternoon–I mean perennials–they will all pretty much bloom at the same time. And then you will be looking at leaves for the rest of the season.

So many folks would come in early in the season and say “I just have today and I want to get this done” as if planting a garden were something like spring cleaning that could be checked off and “finished.”  I am not sure what they thought would happen once the garden was planted–who would weed it, or water the plants or divide them as needed in upcoming years.

But isn’t that a sad commentary on some of our mentalities when gardening is something that we need to “get done!”

Anyway, if this is your plan, I would suggest that you re-think it. Plant a lawn or put in a pool or better yet a patio–something that needs less maintenance than a garden. Because gardens are not about “getting done.”

Wordless Wednesday–From the Sublime…

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I was on vacation last week.  By the time I left, it was in the 80s, and these tulips were open.

I almost didn’t get there. The northeast had one of its bigger March storms. But luckily I got out right in front of it.

Still,  it was a little jarring to come home to this:

Drifts up to the car doors are never good.

And I hate snaking through these narrow paths.  Oh well.  It’s spring and the sun is warm. It won’t last that long now.

And we’re still in drought too so every bit of moisture helps.

Picking Good Plants–Round Two

On Friday I talked about picking a plant that looked most like every other plant. This is a good rule no matter what type of plant you are buying.

Today I want to get into a few more specifics about  what to do when you get to the garden center–and let’s presume you are at a garden center today, simply because  it will have more signage about varieties and possibly more information on the plant tags that will be accurate for your location.

What do I mean by that? When I go to a box store, I am told that the plant “lantana” is a perennial. That’s technically true. It is not, however, a perennial for me here in New England.

I know that in some parts of the country lantana is considered an invasive pest and can grow to the size of a shrub. Here, we grow it as a nicely behaved hanging basket that has flowers that feed our butterflies and hummingbirds and the plant dies at the first hard freeze. See what I mean now about “for your location?”

So, when you walk into your garden center, depending on where you are, you might find lantana in a hanging basket, you might find it with the perennials, or you might not find it at all because it is invasive in your part of the country. There you are. But chances are, you’re not going to just find it willy-nilly labeled “perennial.”

I know the box stores are working on this–and one reason has to do with their guarantee for a year. They don’t want New England customers bringing in their dead lantana the following spring and asking for a refund–and rightly so! No one is happy in that scenario.

Enough plants die in our now unpredictable winters that they shouldn’t have to give for plants that are mis-labeled. But if they mis-label them, well, they get what they deserve.

Apparently I have gone on long enough about why you should be going to the garden center for your spring plant shopping and not a box store–at least if you are a brand new plant buyer. We’ll talk about what to look for on Friday.

Picking Good Plants–Don’t Buy The Renegade

Once you get to the garden center and you are confronted with all sorts of amazing choices, how do you pick the best plants? To a certain degree, it depends upon the type of plant you’re trying to buy (buying a little 6 or 8 pack of annuals requires a lot less care ad concern than the choices you’ll make when selecting a tree, for example). But in general, there are some rules you want to follow when picking any plant, from the little 6-pack of annuals, to a tree or shrub, or even to a house plant in a grocery or box store.

The first rule is, choose the plant that looks most like the rest of the plants. What do I mean by that? Perhaps another way to say it is “don’t choose a plant that stands out from the others.”

There’s a good reason for that: one plant, or a group of plants, may stand out from the others, because there’s something wrong with it (or them).

Now obviously good garden centers (and even box stores) are going to want to pull diseased, dying or otherwise unhealthy plants off the sale floor. But in the middle of a busy May day, sometimes that doesn’t happen fast enough. And if you happen to get to the garden center at just the wrong time, and you are unfamiliar with the plant, what might look like a great weeping variety could turn out to be a plant with vascular wilt. Ugh.

Worse yet, back when hosta mosaic virus was first becoming known, all these cool, mottled hostas were showing up in the trade. It was only later that they were discovered to have a virus. The virus wasn’t visible to the eye–but it could infect other plants in the garden.

A similar thing happens with orchids, which is why orchid societies caution folks to only obtain orchids from reputable, virus free growers.

So while a plant that looks different may really be cool and different, it may also be a problem for you and your garden. If you’re not sure about what you’re getting, leave that plant behind.

More on this on Monday.

Wordless Wednesday

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Do you grow this plant?  You might be right in asking “which one?” because there are a jumble of plants in this photo.

I mean the one with the trifolate leaves and the tiny white flowers. It’s oxalis–but it’s not a pest like the tiny, clover-like weed with the little yellow flowers that grows in your lawns and flower beds.

This is a pretty ornamental.  They sell it this time of year as the “Shamrock Plant.”  It’s really a bulb.

But if you have the weedy type,  don’t be afraid to try this plant.  It is completely different.

Plant Buying Time

We talked a little bit on Friday about plant buying and weather. I threw in an off-hand comment that in my experience garden centers will often get in plants 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out or in the ground.

That may have made some of you indignant, thinking that the retailers were setting you up to fail. I promise you it’s not that way at all. For one thing, when I worked at a garden center, it was a constant balancing act between the needs and wants of our customers and the weather. We wanted to be able to have what they wanted when they wanted it–and yet we often had to warn them that what they were buying wasn’t quite ready to go outside or in the ground.

I know that I start trolling the garden centers trying to find something–anything–that’s alive and green right about now. It doesn’t matter to me what it is or whether it’s ready to go outside. I know how to handle it.

Last year I bought some heuchera right just about this time. I was so excited to find them. When I got them home and went to transplant them–just from the black plastic nursery pot into a more decorative pot–all I had was a tiny root ball in my hand about the size of a tennis ball. I had paid for a gallon pot plant and I got a tennis ball plant and some very expensive potting soil. Oh well. My fault. That’s what happens when you’re over-anxious to be gardening.

My recollection is that one of them didn’t even survive. It may have been one of the dark colored ones. They never work out well for me, and my anxiousness to get them started early probably didn’t help things along.

Remember that in the spring the soil is still cool–I talked about this in my last post. So it never pays to rush things into the ground. If I do shop early, I will usually keep things in pots to give the soil time to warm before I plant them (of course, I have been known to go to extremes with that and then it’s July and I still have a bunch of pots that I am watering that should have gone into the ground weeks earlier!)

Just remember–just because you see it in the stores, it does not necessarily mean it’s safe–or even desirable–to plant it in the garden just yet!

It’s Time to Garden!

Actually no–it’s nowhere near time to garden–not in my part of the country.

But when my sister sent me photos of tomato transplants at her garden center (she lives in Oklahoma) I realized that of course not everyone is gardening on the same schedule and I had better address some thoughts about plant buying if I wanted to try to reach early plant buyers (well, “early” to me, anyway!)

So here are my initial thoughts about what to look for when you first walk into a garden center or a big box store (and yes, as someone who has worked at a box store, I do buy plants there–but of course, I consider myself a fairly sophisticated buyer. We’ll talk about where to buy plants in another post).

First of all, it’s spring. And if you are a gardener–or even if you are not really, but you just like flowers–after not seeing a lot of them for awhile, once there are acres of them in sight, they  are really hard to resist! So what to do and how to choose?

The most important thing to think about is your weather. Is it really time to plant? Certain plants–perennials and that dubious category of “half-hardy annuals” can take things like a light frost or a light freeze. Most things are not going to take repeated hard freezes or, worst of all, heavy snows!

So there’s no point in planting too early, only to have to go back and re-plant. Garden centers love that. You are just wasting your money if you have to do that, however. And I don’t care who you are, no one likes to run out to repeatedly cover plants–or bring pots in and out of a garage or shed!

Remember what I have said in the past: the soil is very slow to warm up in the spring. In the old days, the farmers would wait until they could walk on it bare foot (or sit on it bare bottomed).

Other ways to tell if your last frost has passed is if the oaks have leafed out. If they have, your last frost has passed.

Some folks use the last full moon but I haven’t found that quite as reliable as the oaks for me. But maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention–or perhaps oaks work better in my part of the country.

However you determine your temperatures, just keep an eye on them if you are planting as soon as the garden centers are selling the plants. I find, generally, the plants come in at least 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out.

More about this on Monday.