Toronto Star column – published April 27, 2013
“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” ~Henry Van Dyke
There was a time when we had two distinct spring-planting seasons. The early, ‘bare root’ season ran from early April through early May. Readers who are under 50 years old will not likely remember any of this. I was in my early teens, cutting my teeth in the business at my Father’s garden centre in Willowdale. My first job was to dig young privet, forsythia, lilacs, and small trees out of the mud in the back 40 of the store and wrap them up in copious quantities of clean, wet straw and craft wrapping paper. We would tie the bundles up with string, the price etched on the paper around the roots using a black magic marker so that the cashier would know what to charge and off the customer would trundle with 5 Lombardy Poplars under their arm.
The second spring planting season was the ‘annual’ bedding plant season which began officially on the May 24 weekend and ran until retail stock ran out or summer heat knocked the stuffing out of Canadian gardeners. At that point they generally retired to a hammock with a cold drink.
My, how things have changed.
No one sells nursery stock bare root anymore and most annuals are available before May 24th, remaining in reasonably plentiful supply right through the summer. All but gone are the trays of small-celled packs that hold up to 72 plants. ValleyviewGardens in Agincourt is one of the few retailers that offer a broad selection of vegetables in growing trays as we used to. It is still the best value for your money if you plan to plant a large quantity of tomatoes, peppers, and the like. The cell pack has been replaced by the 3 ½ inch [or 4 inch] pot at a much greater cost per plant.
Today I would like to arm you with the new information. Here is my fool-proof guide to shopping for the best value in plants.
Containers Revolutionize the Business.
It is late April and there will be readers that are counting the days until the May 24 weekend when they can safely plant out of doors. Not so fast, I say: you can be planting this weekend, if you choose.
Late April and early May provide a great opportunity for anyone interested in sprucing up their yard with, well, a spruce. Or a maple or a forsythia. All of the winter hardy nursery stock that we sold a generation ago ‘bare root’ or was dug fresh from the field with roots firmly wrapped in burlap [called ‘balled and burlap’ or b&b] are now grown in nursery pots. These plants are loosely referred to as ‘woodies’ in the business.
The majority of this stock was potted up a year or more ago, grown above the ground on aggregate and wintered over in plastic covered hoop houses on the nursery farm. As soon as the sun provides enough strength to thaw the frozen roots and soil, those plants are instantly ready for sale. They have been arriving at retailers for the last 4 weeks.
This time of year affords the home gardener the very best selection of hardy plant material. A full service garden centre will have their full compliment of fruit trees, berry bushes, roses, shade trees and, well, you name it. Broadly speaking, the only plants that are not available yet are the frost tender annuals and vegetable plants that arrive mid May.
What If I Don’t Want to Plant Yet?
If you purchase your ‘woodies’ now to take advantage of the wide selection but do not have the soil prepared for planting, no worries. Hold your new plants on the north or east side of your home where they are protected from excess wind and sun and keep well watered. It is preferable to let the soil dry about two centimetres down between water applications. They will be fine there for up to a month.
I have ordered 25 very special Bonica roses from my favourite retailer and plan to pick them up this week. Last year I tried to get them later in the season and was out of luck. Such is the nature of the nursery stock business. That is not to say that you need to hurry all of your buying decisions on account of a thin supply. The truth is we have an abundance of nursery stock on the market, like never before. Standard or ‘staple’ plants will be in good supply right through the summer.
One of the tremendous advantages of container-grown nursery stock is that you can plant it all summer long. Planting now makes more sense from the point of view that you will enjoy new growth on your newly acquired plants this spring and their roots will have begun their journey downwards before the heat of summer hits home, which helps to provide drought tolerance and a more stable foundation than the summer planted ones.
Perennials are another interesting study. Delphiniums, hosta, peonies, daylilies, and the like are now available at retailers in abundance. You will find some early flowering perennials in full bloom, tempting you like candy floss tempts a kid. With a few weeks of potential frost ahead of us I offer three words of caution: harden them off.
Container-grown perennials vs. the field-grown varieties in days of yore, have been forced to grow early in greenhouses. This provides the retailer with a better looking product for you to buy but it is much softer as a result. That is to say that it has not been conditioned to the cold evening temperatures that we will get over the next month or so.
‘Hardening off’ your new purchases is not difficult. Just place them out of doors during the day when air temperatures are well above freezing and bring them back indoors when night time frost is called for. Do this for about two weeks and then plant them in their permanent place in the garden or in containers on your patio or deck.
Cold Hardy Colour
As with most things in life, there are lots of exceptions to the ‘rule’. Take annual flowers for instance. While the rest of the world waits patiently for the May 24th weekend to purchase and plant out their annual flowering plants, you can get a head start on them by planting pansies, violas, ranunculus, violets, and primulas. While none of these are technically annuals, they are treated that way by most gardeners. All of them will tolerate some frost.
Some true annuals are frost hardy, to a degree. Geraniums, dusty miller, snapdragons, and salvia are known to take temperatures below freezing, but once again, only when they have been hardened off. Each autumn there is plenty of evidence of their toughness. I have seen geraniums, for instance, look stunning in the middle of November here in Toronto.
If you are thinking of purchasing some water plants for your pond this spring, I suggest that you move this job down your ‘to do’ list for a month or so. Most water plants are not available until mid to late May as many are sensitive to the cold.
For the very best ‘value’ for your plant-buying dollar do not overlook the opportunities found on the seed rack. For $1.89 you can grow about 40 zinnias from seed. Even in the old ‘cell’ packs that compares to about $15 for the transplants. Go to my website for a list of plants that perform well when direct sown by seed into your garden.
While some gardeners will yearn for the glory days from years ago, I am thrilled that this generation of gardeners has the opportunity to choose from a much broader pallet of plants and a much longer planting season thanks to the benefits of science and innovation down on the farm.
Question of the Week
Q/ I used corn gluten on my lawn last week. Can I still overseed the lawn this spring?
A/ Corn gluten is used to prevent crabgrass seed germination. Corn gluten inhibits the germination of all seeds, including grass seed. Wait at least 12 weeks before sowing grass seed.