As the weather begins to warm, gardeners are at risk of catching “spring fever”. Symptoms include more time spent outdoors and numerous visits to the nursery. These visits can lead to impulsive shopping, one of the worst side effects of spring fever.
I always feel like a kid in a candy store when I survey all the pretty plants in bloom and aisles overflowing with new products. But you don’t want to blow your entire budget on your first trip to the nursery, or purchase plants that don’t have a place in the garden and end up languishing in the container until they expire. While best stocked in the spring, nurseries offer plants all season long because plants peak at different times and appear in the nursery when they look their best (usually when blooming). Experienced gardeners make repeat visits to pick up the plants that trickle in well past spring.
It’s best to work from a plan (even if it’s a quick sketch on a napkin) so you can take stock of what you need. Before heading off to the nursery, look around your garden and make a note of plants that are dead or damaged after the winter. It’s helpful to measure the space so you can assure that the plant you choose will not be too large for the space (leading to unnecessary maintenance and possibly the need to remove the plant). Make a list and set a budget.
The best nurseries have experienced gardeners who welcome your questions and can give you the information you need. They also tag each plant with information like common name, botanical name (including variety), hardiness zones, sun requirements, size and care information. This information is important to your success. A special note about sun: full sun in Georgia is not the same as full sun in Texas, so dig deeper about how a plant performs in Texas.
With plants, appearances can be deceiving. It’s easy to be seduced by beautiful flowers and foliage, and while that’s important, there’s more to consider than looks.
Container grown plants that have been taken care of (watered regularly and given the proper light requirements) have a good chance of surviving. A container larger than one gallon with ribbed sides is a good sign; the ribs force roots to grow back into the root ball and avoids circling that results in root bound plants. Root bound plants suffer from dehydration damage and if left unchecked will strangle the plant. Container plants also give you the luxury of not planting right away, so you can plan the garden by placing each plant (still in its pot) in the position you think will work best. Just remember to keep the containers watered.
Root growth is the best indicator of a plant’s health. Roots should be fleshy, firm and numerous; roots that are sparse, damaged or have a rotting smell are not good. Check the bottom of the container for roots growing out of the drainage hole, or slip your finger between the pot wall and the soil to make sure it doesn’t feel like a thick mass of roots. Most nurseries prefer that customers not pull plants out of their containers, but it is perfectly acceptable to ask a salesperson to do it for you. If plants appear loose in the pot, chances are that it has been recently potted into a larger container and hasn’t had time to become established, in which case you’re paying for a larger plant than you’re getting.
Healthy plants are the appropriate shade of green, have compact growth, and more buds than flowers. Look for healthy, sturdy plants that appear to be the right size for their containers. Avoid plants that have sprawling, spindly stems (sun stressed), have wilted leaves (water stressed) or yellow leaves (nutrient stressed). Most plant diseases are either fungal or bacterial. Signs to look for are brown spots surrounded by a yellow halo, water soaked lesions or mosaic leaf patterns. Remember, disease is contagious; avoid plants surrounding diseased plants as well.
When buying trees and shrubs, examine the branching structure. Does it look well branched and balanced? Are there snapped branches (an entry point for disease, insects and fungus), crossing stems or bad grafts? The crotch of the tree is the part where the trunk first divides to form branches. Have a careful look at the crotch to make sure there are no splits in the wood and that it’s not too tight or too low.
When purchasing vegetables, buy green plants without fruit. Premature fruiting occurs when a plant has been stressed by lack of light or water (or applying chemicals by the grower). You will get the best show when purchasing annual flowers with lots of buds but few open flowers. That being said, remember that tags can sometimes be switched, so if you’re looking for a particular color, purchase a plant with at least one bloom.
Stretch your dollar with this tip: often hanging baskets of annuals can be divided into 4-6 smaller plants, costing less than if bought individually, and a container of a fast growing perennial (such as daylily, iris or liriope) can yield several plants.
Here’s another tip: annuals left on the shelves after the June rush tend to get marked down after the Fourth of July, making this a perfect time to pick up plants to tuck into a dull or sparse place in the garden.
Plants need to be coddled the first month after planting and proper watering is the key to success. Don’t rely on your irrigation system, hand watering is required. Follow this schedule (pretend that you planted on May 1st):
1. Water every day for the first three days (May 1, 2 and 3)
2. Water every other day for the next three times (May 5, 7 and 9)
3. Water every third day for the next three times (May 12, 15 and 18)
4. Water every fourth day for the next three times (22, 26 and 30)
Don't be skimpy, give the plants a good drink. With a medium flow count to 20 or 30 for most shrubs depending on the size of the plant; 4" annuals will only require a count of 5 or 8.
Prepare for next year by keeping a garden/photo journal. This will give you a clear vision of areas that are overgrown or under planted, colors that don’t seem to work and plants that are struggling with too much or not enough sun. A garden journal also lets you celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes.
Spring fever can’t be cured with an injection, but you can reduce the chance of impulse buying by following my tips to plan and shop with confidence. Choose plants that are healthy and appropriate for our hardiness zone. Then plant them where they will receive the proper sunlight, and water them appropriately to get them established. Now head out to your favorite nursery and shop for exactly what you need to make your garden grow!