No matter how many Ohio River Valley springs you’ve been through, you have to know that we likely have a few more whacks of Old Man Winter in our near future. Dogwood winter, blackberry winter, snow on Kentucky Derby Day. Don’t laugh — it happens!
If we could all just resist the temptation of unreasonably early tomato planting we’d avoid tempting the garden gods and might just sneak through. But us being gardeners, that’s not very likely …
Despite what’s in store for our meteorological future, there is one thing that is not up for debate. We’ll all be out there buying plants over the coming weeks. Neither rain nor sleet nor mucky soil will keep us from our appointed plant buying.
So to help guide you through the process, here are a few tips that’ll help you get the most out of your spring plant buying.
Beautifully grown specimen of Heuchera ‘Caramel’ in Yew Dell’s plant nursery showing nice, even root distribution and a lack of heavy, circling roots. (Photo: Courtesy of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens)
This is probably a no-brainer but buying your plants from a local nursery is one good way to tap into years of local experience. Which magnolias are likely to avoid a late freeze? What phlox variety is the most mildew resistant in our climate? Out of the 100,000 hosta varieties on the market, what’s the best one for Kentucky (OK, good luck with that one!)
When somebody sitting in an office 2,500-miles away is doing the buying for a nursery, it’s less likely that they’ll have good knowledge about what will and what won’t work here.
Just about everyone I know who works in a local nursery is, to some degree, a plant nut. Their gardens are packed with everything they know they shouldn’t grow here. They have tucked in here and there all the plants that got damaged during unloaded from a truck. They generally have 10 times more plants per square meter than they should. But the bottom line is, they have grown and are currently growing more plants than most otherwise normal people. They’ve probably killed more plants than you’ll grow in a “normal” gardening lifetime. Shopping local lets you learn from their foibles and accumulated expertise.
It’s all about the roots
A perfect specimen of the evergreen sedge (Carex ‘Everoro’) showing good balance of root and top growth and absence of compacted, circling roots. (Photo: Courtesy of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens)
When shopping for plants it’s so easy to find yourself mesmerized by the rhythmic swaying of fragrant blooms as you walk the rows in the garden center. We often make the mistake of picking the one with the biggest flowers, the most blooms or (gasp!) the prettiest pot. What we should be doing is checking out the roots.
If you wander around a garden center and watch the people instead of the plants, you can always tell the growers in the crowd. They’re the people who pick up a plant and immediately turn it over, give the bottom of the container a good whack and slide the root ball out of the pot. They know well that if a plant doesn’t have good roots, all the pretty up top is a waste.
So how do you evaluate a root system? First, look for plants that have that perfect balance of root growth. If you turn over the pot and all the growing mix falls out, the plant’s probably just been stuck in that pot and hasn’t had a chance to fill it with roots. Such plants won’t establish as well as a properly grown plant and honestly, you’re just not getting your money’s worth.
On the other hand, you don’t want a root system that would hold together if you dropped it off the Empire State Building. Root-bound plants are hard to establish in good fashion and more often than not, simply don’t make a successful transition to the garden.
Look for healthy, white root tips, a sound but pliable root mass, and a plant that is well centered in the pot. Those are all signs of a well-grown plant — the kind you want.
But the tops are important, too
This container grown specimen of Epimedium ‘Pink Elf’ shows vigorous white new roots but lacks the heavy mat of roots seen in plants that have been in the container too long. (Photo: Courtesy of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens)
While we love to knock plants out of their pots to check the roots, you can certainly learn something from the tops as well. A big, vigorous potted perennial with brown around the edges has probably been grown with too little spacing. A plant that shows obvious signs of just having been cut back is another caution sign. Sure, plants a bit crowded in the nursery or cut back recently can eventually recover and grow just fine. Those traits don’t spell failure all by themselves. But they do give you an indication of the care taken by the grower. I don’t know about you but I want a grower who cares about my future plants as much I do.
But one thing to be aware of if you’re a beginner in the plant buying world is that not all plants are designed to be perfect little muffins. While that may be the trend in modern plant breeding (after all, you can fit more little muffin plants per shipping rack than you can big, billowy plants) there are some plants that, no matter how well they are grown, won’t look like all the others. Our friend the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) as an 8-foot tree always looks a bit like a glorified coat rack. They really don’t start to develop a fully branched crown until they get a few more years on them. A sparsely branched, young ginkgo can be a perfectly grown and healthy specimen.
Know your plants
So the last rule of plant buying is to know your plants. The more you know about what a particular plant is supposed to look like, the easier it will be to pick a good specimen. And if you’re buying plants you don’t know all that well, there’s one more reason to shop with the support of local experts.
Now go do us all a favor and put those tomato transplants back in the garage until after the Kentucky Derby so you don’t raise the ire of those irascible garden gods!
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.
IF YOU GO
Native Plants to Attract Hummingbirds – Virtual Workshop
WHAT: Learn how to attract hummingbirds to your garden utilizing native plants. Alicia Bosela, owner of Ironweed Native Plant Nursery in Columbia, will share how to attract those amazing hummingbirds to your own garden using native plants. Each ticket will include a Cardinal Flower grown right here in Yew Dell’s Nursery.
WHEN: April 6, 6-7 p.m.
COST: $25/$35 members/non-members
MORE DETAILS: yewdellgardens.org/classes-events
Yew Dell Online Nursery April Plant Release – The Big Kahuna
WHAT: Yew Dell’s online nursery of specialty plants releases new offerings the first Wednesday morning of every month but April is the biggest release of the year. With more than 150 new offerings hitting the site with the April release, shoppers will have access to more than 400 total plant varieties, all selected by Yew Dell horticulture staff.
WHEN: April 7, 9 a.m.
MORE DETAILS: shopyewdell.com
Beneficial Bugs for Your Garden – Virtual Workshop with Beneficial Bug
WHAT: Learn about using beneficial bugs as a natural way to control insect pests in your garden. Have a problem with bugs eating your favorite garden plants? Beneficial bugs can help control your pest problem in a sustainable and more environmentally friendly way. During this class Blair Leano-Helvey, the owner and mastermind behind Idlewild Butterfly Farm & Insectarium will get participants garden-ready for spring with a discussion about using beneficial organisms to control insect pests. Each ticket will include a beneficial bug for your own garden.
WHEN: April 14, 6-7 p.m.
COST: $25/$35 members/non-members
MORE INFORMATION: yewdellgardens.org/classes-events
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