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Green in the Thumb, Not the Wallet? Top Tips for Smart Garden Shopping

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may15homespunweb.jpgBy Beth Botts

RISMEDIA, May 15, 2008-(MCT)-For beginners, especially, a garden center can be overwhelming and bewildering: the colors and dazzle, the crowds, the high spirits, the pie-in-the-sky fantasies, the peer pressure, the devil-may-care impulse buying that can leave a wallet gasping. But some preparation, a bit of planning and a little knowledge can cut the problem down to size and improve the odds for plants (and wallets).

We asked Elizabeth Hoffman, owner of West End Florist & Garden Center in Evanston, Ill., (800-228-8755 or westendflorist.com) and George Rumsey, perennials co-chair for the Hyde Park (Ill.) Garden Fair (May 16-17; hydeparkgardenfair.org) for advice on smart shopping.

Read Labels. The conditions the plant needs are listed on the label (often as symbols). If you don’t understand the symbols, ask. And never buy a plant without a label.

Annual of Perennial? This is a key distinction. Annuals bloom all season and then die (and require more fertilizing and, often, watering). Perennials live from season to season, but they bloom only for a few weeks each year. Different perennials bloom at different times. “You buy perennials for the long term, not for instant satisfaction like you do annuals,” says Rumsey.

Resist Seduction. Retailers know gardeners are suckers for flowers, so many plants are manipulated to bloom way too early at prime shopping time. That may leave them weak, stressed and sickly in your garden. A perennial that is in bloom way ahead of time-say a daylily or a coneflower flowering in May- won’t bloom again this summer. So read the label and don’t buy perennials that are blooming outside their natural time.

Check Bloom Color. For annuals, it can be important to see the flower color, so find a six-pack or flat with one or two blooms, but the rest just buds. You want the plant to save most of its blooming for your garden.

Leaf Color. Leaves should be a healthy, fresh green-unless the plant has been bred to have chartreuse or purple or white leaves. Check the label.

Shape. Plants should be full, fairly compact, with balanced growth in proportion to the pot. “I don’t want anything that looks overgrown or rangy,” with stalky stems and lots of space between leaves, Rumsey says. That usually means the plant has been stretching to get light. If it hasn’t been given the right light, it may have been neglected in other ways.

Pests and Disease. Don’t buy a plant if there are spots or brown edges on the leaves, or if you see crawling or flying bugs.

Roots. The root system is more important than the top growth. Roots should be white and mostly fill the pot, but not be a solid mass circling the pot wall or showing at the surface of the soil. Ask, though, before you remove a plant from a pot to look at the roots. If a lot of roots are coming out the holes in the pot, “it probably means it’s an old plant that’s been in the pot too long,” Rumsey says.

Small vs. Large. There are trade-offs in pot size. Flats of annuals and vegetables sold for about the same price may contain 36 plants or 48 smaller, younger ones. More plants may not be a better deal; the larger plants will have better-developed roots. Perennials usually are sold in 1-gallon pots. You can save money by buying them in 3-inch pots, but they likely won’t flower until next year. And bear in mind that a larger pot doesn’t always mean a larger or more mature plant.

Don’t shop just by price. A cheap, hastily grown plant, with oversized, chemically boosted foliage and out-of-season flowers but poor roots, is no bargain.

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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