Thursday, March 24, 2011


            Ding-dong, the winter’s fled! At least it has in southeastern North Carolina. (A friend told me it snowed on Monday in Swansea, Massachusetts. Sorry, you guys. I remember the late-April Easter Sunday my little family hiked to the top of Black Mountain near Lake George, NY, for a picnic… as the snowflakes filtered down around us. Oh, yes, I remember. And I don’t miss it in the slightest.)

Colorful annuals grab the eye

But even if it isn’t in the air where you live, you’ll know spring has sprung by the color riot at your local garden centers, home improvement palaces and big-box stores. Counting on the warmth- and color-starved masses to flood in for succor, garden center sales will be brisk as customers do their damnedest to push the season.

            I know, I know. The first warmish day you’re going to rush out and purchase primroses and pansies, petunias and pentas, no matter what I say, so let’s run through some things you should look for when buying trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Several conditions affect the success rate of what you bring home.

1.      Buy as locally grown as possible. Plants already acclimated to your climate have an automatic head-start over “foreigners” from elsewhere. For example, I obtain most of the bulbs I plant for clients and myself from Brent and Becky Heath in Gloucester, Virginia instead of from John Scheepers and Von Bourgondien in Michigan. All have good products, but southeastern Virginia’s climate more closely resembles mine than Michigan’s. For the same reason, I advocate patronizing your neighborhood growers and independent garden centers over the big-box stores. Yes, the smaller guy’s prices are higher, but the plants are more likely to have been grown in the same environment you plan to put them in. Besides, in these tough economic times, small local businesses need your support more than conglomerates like Lowe’s or Wal-Mart.

Andromeda (Pieris japonica)
struggles to survive on the coast,
but my local Lowe's stocks it
every year anyway
2.      Another salient point about big-box garden centers: these stores order their plants by region (i.e., the Southeast) or by state. Taking North Carolina (of course) as an example: light, sandy, nutrient-deficient alkaline coastal soils are nothing at all like the heavy, acidic, nutrient-dense clay of the Piedmont and mountains. So what? So there is a marked difference in how a plant originating in Yadkinville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge performs in sultry Charlotte, mountainous Murphy and coastal Calabash. But Lowe’s stores carry the same plants in all three areas. Caveat emptor, y’all.

3.      Bargain-priced plants are often not bargains at all unless your green thumb is legendary. While there is nothing wrong with nursing neglected, ailing specimens back to health—indeed, it’s a commendable activity—my personal feeling is that life is too short to start out with ugly, albeit inexpensive, plants. (I also harbor a similar unreasoning prejudice against thrift and consignment stores. The thought of wearing someone else’s discarded shoes literally turns my stomach. This condition probably stems from years of ill-fitting hand-me-downs worn when new by my tall, athletically built older sister. I am not now, nor have I ever been, tall or athletically built.)

Pot-bound plants have a harder time
establishing than properly rooted ones

4.      Try not to be insulted by this statement of the obvious, but don’t buy sick plants. Check the roots as well as the top-growth; avoid both underdeveloped (most of the substrate stays in the pot when you pull out the plant) or overdeveloped (huge mats of root material hanging out the bottom) root systems. Roots should be light-colored and fill the pot comfortably, without bulges or cracks. It’s okay if some roots trail out, but you should be able to get the plant out of the pot without resorting to a hacksaw. Pot-bound plants take longer to establish in the landscape, and hardly rooted specimens may never establish at all. At best, you’ll have paid a three-gallon price for a one-gallon bush.

5.      Avoid plants that have known histories of disease or pest problems in your area. Kwansan cherries (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwansan’) are often prone to borers and fatal bacterial blights in my environs; red-leafed plums (Prunus cerasifera) also suffer lingering malaises, just never doing well. (Might be the salt, as they thrive inland). Talk to your neighbors and independent garden-center staffs to find out if there’s something you need to know about a particular specimen. The kicker here is this: every plant is an individual, and microclimates abound. My favorite example of horticultural “Confound the Expert” is brought to us by the Official State Tree of the Great State of North Carolina, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). In general, they don’t do all that well on the coast. They prefer acidic soils: ours aren’t. Personally, I vote for the deleterious effects of salt in the soil and air. However, beautiful specimens—though unusual—can be found. Fill dirt? Microclimate? Spite? Who knows?

These creeping phlox (Phlox subulata)
are not only bloomed-out,
their foliage is lanky

6.      When shopping for trees and shrubs, look for foliage with good color and minimal to no damage. Check for spots, brown leaf edges and bare branches. Often these conditions are caused by cold, transient pests or drying winds and the plant will probably make a full recovery, but why take the chance unless you have to? If you’re in the market for a deciduous plant during the dormant season, make sure the buds on the branches appear plump. Size at purchase is a matter of personal preference and budget. The good (cheap) news is that many trees establish faster when planted at smaller sizes; they catch up with larger specimens within a few years. As for shrubs, be aware that nurseries often dose their out-going stock with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), which makes the plant preternaturally green and lush… while it’s in its pot. This is particularly true of Mother’s Day favorites like roses, gardenias, hydrangeas and azaleas. I’m just saying.

Bloomed-out  snapdragons
(Antirrhinum majus)

7.      When in the market for perennials, remember stocky is always better than lanky. And believe it or not, plants that have overwintered in their containers have the most to recommend them. Quicker to establish once in the ground, two-year-olds frequently bloom earlier than their younger cousins. Beware of specimens with scanty, pale foliage and/or blooming far ahead of season: these plants have probably been forced into flower in greenhouses and may find the outside world difficult to adjust to. Keep in mind the old garden-center saw, “Buy plants, not flowers.” Avoid bloomed-out specimens, even though they’re the ones that grab your eye. Look instead for buds to outnumber blooms—that way, the big display will take place in your garden, not in the store. Check for light-colored roots and substrates with a nice, earthy smell—reject any plants with mushy root fibers or bad odors, as these probably have some malady or other.

Un-bloomed-out snapdragons
(Antirrhinum majus)

8.       The same principles apply to choosing annuals. You want good foliage color and sturdy plants, more buds than flowers, strong but not pot-bound root systems. (Bodacious in-store blooming is not as bad a thing as it is with perennials. Motivated by the biological imperative to reproduce, annuals bloom their little hearts out all season anyway. Which is why we love them.) Be sure you keep a weather eye on tender specimens until all danger of frost has passed, or you may find yourself starting over again.

So there it is, guidelines for picking perfect plants. Happy hunting!

And thanks for dropping by.


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