It’s that time of year again when all true gardeners are going to be haunting nurseries for that perfect plant. With the overwhelming variety of gorgeous annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees it is often hard to make wise selections. Here are just a few reminders to keep us from coming home with plants that are unsuitable for our gardens, unhealthy or disasters in the making.
The first thing I do when I enter a nursery is head to the sale table. I know many of you take this route, as well. This is not a bad thing and there are great buys to be found on these sale tables. You will often find plants that are in excellent condition for as low as 10% of their original cost. However, it is a case of caveat emptor. This activity is safest in establishments that are known to actually take care of their plants. What you will find there are plants that were left when the new shipment came in not plants that are half dead from neglect. They are often in excellent condition but they are no longer in bloom or the blooms are fading. This is not a problem with annuals, pinch off the old blooms and they will set new buds. Make sure that you are buying annuals that will continue to bloom for the rest of the summer or at least for a reasonable time. Don’t buy pansies near the end of May when the coming heat of June will send them into near dormancy. Conversely, don’t buy annuals that the stores have gotten in too early and are dumping. Do you really want to bother holding plants for a month before the weather is suitable for planting.
Perennials from the sale table aren’t going to bloom again until the next season, but take into consideration that most perennials that are bought in bloom aren’t going to bloom for an extended period of time anyway. Never, ever buy a biennial that is done blooming. Foxgloves are the ones that usually catch the unwary. If biennials are bought in bloom they may set seed and you will see them again next year. If they are done blooming you are wasting time and money as you will probably never see them again.
No matter how well cared for, most of the nursery plants that have been there a considerable time will be stressed. Check the foliage. Brown edges or dried up leaves may indicate that they haven’t been watered regularly. Annuals and even some perennial early in the year may have been exposed to frost. Often this will only cause cosmetic damage and the affected leaves can be removed. Steer clear if the stems themselves are actually drooping. An exception would be a really good priced perennial that you covet. You may lose the top foliage but the roots will probably be alive.
Check the roots to make sure that they aren’t mushy from over watering or dried up from under watering. The later in the season that you buy perennials from the sale table the less likely they are to survive. They are going into winter in less than excellent condition and that can prove fatal. That said, go for it! Sale tables are a great way to stock up on perennials and buy multiples of a coveted plant.
No matter how little or how much you pay for a plant read the tag; sure the plant is suitable to the area. Of course it doesn’t make sense for a nursery to sell perennials or shrubs that are not hardy in the area in which they exist…. but they do. The tag should also indicate how much sun the plant needs and its water requirements. There is no point in buying a plant if you cannot provide the appropriate conditions. If a plant requires moist conditions in full sun and the only damp part of your yard is in the shade you are going to be doing a lot of watering or waiting fruitlessly for blooms that don’t appear or are produced sparsely. If you are making a considerable investment do some further research to make sure that you can give the plant proper drainage and soil conditions. A tag isn’t going to tell you that a plant won’t grow in clay soil or will happily grow in a puddle.
Don’t buy without a plan! Especially don’t buy plants that you plan to keep for many years without due consideration. It is very difficult for a true gardener to pass up a plant he/she falls in love with but do have a basic plan. The “bones” of your garden should be well thought out and plants you love can be filled in around them. This allows you to avoid trees, grasses or shrubs that are going to be a nuisance later. If not done carefully this kind of basic bones planting, necessary to give some form to your garden or landscaping, can outgrow the area you have allocated for it. It may shade out areas that you want for purposes other than shade plants or under plantings. You can end up with trees and shrubs that are not happy where they are growing, make messes, or are devoured by animals. Worst case scenario is, at some point, you will be digging up large plants that no longer or never did fit into the scheme of things.
Once you start buying plants to fill in around your under pinning plants you can indulge your creativity. Do keep in mind your color scheme when doing so. Unless you have the same color combinations through out the entire growing season it is necessary to know when a plant will bloom, as well as what color the flowers will be. Your garden may be alive with pinks and blues in the early summer, oranges and yellows midseason and reds and yellows in the late summer. If you covet a bright red Asiatic lily it would be wise to make sure it is not one of the early blooming ones.
Take into consideration, not just the flowers, but the leaves of a plant. Unless you plant annuals it is not possible to have all of the plants in a bed in constant bloom. There are great colored leaf plants that can brighten up a bed even when there is little in bloom. “Golden Jubilee” hyssop is one of the best. The yellow of the leaves glow with the color of the sun and when the purple blooms appear, combined with the bright yellow leaves, they light up the entire garden. The Artemisia with their silvery leaves make great background plants and cool down the hot reds of summer. And don’t forget texture. From the crinkly leaves of some of the hostas to the fuzzy leaves of the lamb’s ears, textured plants add interest to your beds.
Unless it is a specimen plant or a focal point buy more than 2. The rule is to buy at least three plants. This adds symmetry to your plantings and prevents the eye from darting from plant to plant like a crazed hummingbird. The eye should be able to follow a flowing pattern. If you are adverse to the idea of buying boring duplicates buy plants that can be divided in a few years and leave room for their off spring. While few of us have the room to do this with every plant or even the majority of them the multiple planting of even a single plant will keep a garden from becoming a visual jumble
Finally, get the plants into the ground as soon as possible. They will thank you for it. Many plants that are fresh from the nursery are root bound or will need frequent watering. Forget to water or leave them in too bright sun and you will lose your new purchases.