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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.

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.

 

 

Latest and Greatest or Tried and True?

The early 2016 magazines and blogs always have the 2016 plant introductions. And some of them are pretty exciting.

First of all, from what I am reading, the “edibles” trend is no longer a trend–it’s mainstream. How’s that for fabulous? So it stands to reason that a lot of the new introductions are edible plants.

Of course, if you have been a vegetable gardener for years (and even a fruit grower) this does not come as news to you. New vegetables are introduced literally every single year. For the most part, these are hybrids, and the growers are trying to solve a problem with insects or disease–or sometimes both.

With respect to fruit trees and shrubs, for years, growers have been trying to get these plants into a more ornamental form–and to a more manageable one that would better accommodate  the backyard and not the orchard. Things that immediately come to mind are the columnar apple trees and the much smaller blueberry and raspberry bushes that can be grown in containers if need be.

Shrubs too have been shrinking in size to accommodate our gardens–and our mixed shrub borders. In some cases, the smaller shrubs lose nothing–they retain the fragrance of the original parent plant. In others, they actually gain something–larger flowers, colorful foliage, something like that.

But here’s the question: Do you rush out and buy “the latest and greatest” new plant introduction every year? Or do you stick with tried and true plants for your garden? Or some combination of the above?

For me, for the most part, I stick with the tried and true (unless I am trialing new plants, of course).  I have a tough site and tough soil. I don’t want to have to guess about how a plant is going to perform over an unpredictable winter (and summer for that matter–we’ve had two drought summers in a row and I don’t supplement the watering at my house, except for the first year when I am establishing a plant). But it’s really the wet cold springs that usually rot new plantings at my house. Even if I plant for a full zone colder than my actual zone and try to elevate the crown of the plant, nothing really likes “feet” in prolonged wet clay.

But that rule applies only to trees, shrubs and perennials. Remember my new year’s gardening resolution? This year I am trying a new snow pea, a scarlet runner bean with decorative leaves (as well as those flowers that should help the hummingbirds–got to do what we can for our pollinators!) And you saw the decorative amaranth seeds I bought, just for fun. We’ll see. I am not sure if I have enough sun but what the heck–I am starting them from seed so the price is right.

That’s where my experimentation comes in–in the annuals and vegetables!  If they turn out to be spectacular failures, all I have are tiny holes in the garden–and in the budget!

On Wednesday and Friday I will show you some trends from the Connecticut Flower and Garden show.

 

 

My Love/Hate Affair With “Mums”

mum close-up

Just one thing to get out of the way before I begin. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that I’ve tagged this post both “annual” and “perennial.” That’s because most of the mums (and let’s just call them that, shall we? In my brief career in retail gardening, they went from chrysanthemum to leucanthemum to dendranthemum  back to chrysanthemum. Thankfully, “mum” was always correct.) sold in my part of the country will not over-winter unless they are planted in the ground very early–and by early, I mean July.

Since most folks don’t even want to think about mums that early, even if you can get them (and yes, you can get them in July–I have done it and they have over-wintered and I’ve had them for 8 seasons now, even through the last 2 brutal winters–that’s how I know it can be done!), most of us in New England treat these plants as just more fall blooming annuals–sort of like the pansies, cabbages and kale that are sold this time of year.

There are a couple of perennial true chrysanthemums, but they come in colors like pale pink, not the fall colors most of us associate with mums so most folks don’t plant them for obvious reasons. They are also very late bloomers in my part of the country–they are just coming into bloom in the last week of October/first week of November so it is often a race to see whether they will flower or get hit with an untimely storm that will kill them. Again, not optimal. Or, they get buried in leaves. Also not ideal.

As you might imagine, I don’t use mums much at my house. They might fill a void–as the one that I planted in July 8 years ago did! It took the place of another annual that had “up and died” in the middle of the summer. Finding good looking annuals in mid-July can be a challenge and the place where it was going doesn’t have a lot of soil–certainly nothing suitable for many perennials (although I’ve since filled in with heuchera that are doing nicely.) So a 4″ mum fit the bill. I left it to over-winter, since I’d planted it so early. And 8 years later, it’s still growing and flowering. Who knew?

Last year I found a lovely pot of 3 mums planted together that I indulged in. This year I filled a planter of worm-ravaged petunias with mums. That’s about as many mums as you’ll ever find on my property. If I’m going to bring something in, I prefer it to be asters, so there will be some nectar for my pollinators. I’ve never seen a thing on the mums.

As for the love/hate thing? Well, every year when the mums come out, I hate it. They remind me of fall and fall of course, while it is a lovely season by itself, means the end of outdoor gardening and the coming of winter. That never makes me happy!

But recently I’ve read a couple of different articles singing the praises of mums. One was in the Washington Post (which still has 2 garden writers while most papers have done away with garden writing altogether so kudos to them!) and the other was in Flower magazine.  I’ve included links in case you’re interested. The photos in the Post article are amazing!

 

Who Planted This?

verbascum

Whenever I drive around and see stands of this plant by the roadside, I always wish I could stop the car and get photos. This is one of my all-time favorite plants. Never mind that most people consider it a noxious weed that grows in roadside ditches. I find it just beautiful, with its huge stalks of yellow flowers that open slowly over a period of weeks.

You can see that this was probably bird planted. It’s in a little weedy area that’s a bit of a no-man’s land on the edge of my wildlife garden and my neighbor’s lawn. I try to weed out the truly bad stuff that appears there–ragweed and the invasives–but I can see in the photo that there’s some bittersweet (for a change) sneaking up in there. I’ll have to try to whack it back.  Getting it all out is near impossible.

Ditto for the Virginia Creeper in the area. I don’t even try because that’s a great bird plant. I just try to keep it from running amok through the garden.

This plant is a verbascum, although don’t ask me variety. There’s a second coming up right behind it which makes me sure it was bird-planted. I learned in Colorado that the call it Miner’s Tallow because they would use the stalks for “candles.” And we think mining is a tough occupation today!

Herbalists will boil and strain the leaves (which are felty) and use them for coughs and bronchitis.  And I’ve heard tell that campers will improvise and use the leaves as toilet tissue. Talk about tough! Whew!

I believe I will just enjoy the flowers in the garden and by the roadside, thank you very much!

 

Why Are There Flowers in the Vegetable Garden?

The easiest and quickest answer to my post’s question is “why NOT flowers in the vegetable garden?” But of course there are lots of answers to this question.

When I first started my garden, I had just one sunny garden, so I just naturally grew all my sun loving flowers and my vegetables together. There didn’t seem to be anything strange about that–and I wasn’t growing castor beans, so it wasn’t really a problem.

Gradually, the flowers overtook that garden, so I moved the veggies up to a raised bed in a different part of the yard. But I didn’t omit the flowers. Why?

First of all, we need flowers if we want vegetables, if you remember my post from last Friday about some of my retail gardening customers who used a few too many pesticides and had no bees and therefore no vegetables. So flowers will lure in the bees and other pollinators to the garden and while they’re there bumbling around (sometimes literally) they’ll be happy to pollinate your vegetables for you as well so long as you’re not poisoning them into oblivion.

Next flowers can be beneficial in luring some not so nice insects away from your perfectly tasty crops. Aphids are a mild pest in my part of the country but in other parts of the country I know they’re a 12 month nuisance. There are plants that repel them and plants that attract them. In my garden, I have always found that nasturtiums were aphid magnets. I’ve not seen this listed anywhere but all I need to do is to plant them and the next thing I know they’re covered in aphids. It’s a shame too because I love to grow them for their edible qualities and I can rarely get them to last long enough.

Many herbs will repel aphids, particularly those one would expect like onions, garlic and chives. One that is a bit unexpected is feverfew, but be cautious about letting that self-sow or you’ll have it forever. I don’t mind–you might.