Published in the Toronto Star – May 5, 2018
Early May – finally time to get planting.
But before you plant, you shop. With garden retailers preparing for the predictable spring surge in business, shoppers need to prepare themselves for the best shopping experience ever.
Here are our tips for getting the very best plant value while shopping this spring:
1. Perfect is imperfect. All of us do it: we automatically reach for the perfect flowering plant. A hydrangea in full bloom, a pot of pansies brimming with colour. Fact is, a plant brimming with colour is soon in decline. This is true of plants that bloom at their very best once a year, like a hydrangea, but not so much a season-long performer like a geranium. Choose plants that are in flower bud, not flower, and enjoy a longer bloom cycle.
- Avoid root-bound plants. Often plants have been grown past their peak. The easiest way to determine the quality of the plant you are buying is to pull it gently from the pot. Retailers won’t mind that you do this, if you are careful not to spill soil everywhere. The pot should be 50 to 70% roots, the balance a quality potting mix. If the roots twirl around the inside of the pot, they are likely to sit in your garden in shock. Pull tightly wound roots apart before you plant or avoid root bound plants in the first place.
- Soft plants are in danger of frost damage. We will get frost over the next few weeks in Southern Ontario. Guaranteed. This puts soft plants that have been forced to grow early in a green house or that have been imported from warmer climes at risk of frost damage. Your best bet are plants that are just breaking bud or still dormant. They won’t look as scrumptious as the Japanese maple that has just arrived from British Columbia in full and glorious leaf, but they will leaf out and perform much better in your garden.
- Autumn stock is a good bet. Some retailers store their left-over stock from last fall and bring it out for sale early in the spring. This stock may perform very well in your garden as the plants are generally more established and ‘hardened off’, therefore more tolerant of frost than new stock fresh from the greenhouse.
- Imperfect may be temporary. Experienced gardeners know that some of the best plant deals are at the back of the store, where less than perfect specimens are often offered at discount prices. Like a broken branch or a scar in the bark that can be overcome with time or pruning. In a few years a tree or shrub that is imperfect at time of purchase can look great. Patience and pruning can pay off.
- Seeds save money. Many plant shoppers forget to go inside the store to peruse the seed racks. Truth is, many herbs, annuals, vegetables and perennials grow easily from seed and they always cost much less than plants. You will have to wait a few weeks for seeds to germinate and grow, but often they catch up to their potted brethren in time.
- Divide and save. Some of the best plant deals this time of year are not at retailers but local horticultural society or Master Gardener meetings, even some garage sales. The divisions from someone else’s hosta or daylily can take root and perform very well in your garden this season and save you a lot of money.
For that matter, if you have perennials of your own in your garden that are several years old, chances are many of them can be dug up, divided with a sharp spade or knife and planted around your garden. For free.
And it is hard to beat free.