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Picking the Perfect Plant at a Plant Sale - Feb 18, 2014

By: Lindsay Hendricks, Horticulturist, Green Bay Botanical Garden

The weather outside is downright frightful, but planning our gardens is so delightful! Tis the season when we ‘Plant People’ go stir crazy and wish nothing more than to be outside in our gardens. Unfortunately, it seems Mother Nature has no intentions of letting this happen anytime soon. So in the meantime, we begin planning our gardens and creating our plant wish-lists.

When picking out your plants—annuals, perennials, trees or shrubs—there are a few things you should know in order to get the best plant at the best price at the best time of year.

What are some physical things you should look for in a plant? Whether you are buying plants at a local plant sale or greenhouse, the criteria for finding a healthy plant are the same. First, you want a plant with healthy, green color and lots of growth. Avoid anything that looks stressed, including plants whose foliage is yellow or brown, dead or dry, or covered with brown, yellow, or black spots. Another sign of stress can be loss of foliage. Also make sure to inspect the plants root system. Carefully pop the plant out of its container: healthy roots are white to yellow in color. Dark, black, or smelly roots indicate a problem. A poor root system below ground can lead to poor plant growth above ground.

And unless you want to wage war in your garden, avoid buying any plant material that is covered with insects, unless you don’t mind spending the time, money, and effort needed to control them. The occasional ladybug is nothing to be concerned with, but if aphids, mealy bugs, thrips, or scale appear to be having a family reunion, DON’T BUY THE PLANT!

How do you know if you are getting a good deal?  When planning your garden, there are some things to keep in mind: smaller-sized plants will cost less up front, but take longer to fill in. Larger-sized plants will give you an instant garden, but will be more expensive up front. They will also require more water during their first year of growth to become established. New, rare, or trademarked varieties (anything with a ® or ™) may be more expensive simply because of limited supply and high demand. Pricing at retailers is affected by operating costs, shipping and handling costs, and supply and demand. To find the best deals, do some research before you shop. Make a list of retailers in your area (and keep that plant wish-list handy) and watch your local newspapers and online for ads. Throughout the season many retailers will offer Buy-One-Get-One or similar sales to clear out inventory. You may be able to get price quotes over-the-phone or online, but the most fun way is to go shopping!

So when is the best time to buy plants?  You must first ask yourself how much you want to spend and when. Some gardeners think the best time to purchase plants is as soon as retailers stock them on their shelves and although this is tempting, you may want to hold off for various reasons. First, you need to be sure all danger of frost has passed before planting annuals and perennials outside or you risk having to replace the plant and spend more money. Second, if you can wait until the end of the season you may be able to find some good deals. Just keep in mind that plants should be in the ground long enough so they have time to establish a root system and increase their chance of surviving the winter. 

Generally speaking, buying plants in early spring through late summer will give you the best selection and highest quality plant material. As the season progresses, temperatures increase, plants get neglected, and their quality begins to deteriorate. To move product off their shelves, retailers start discounting their merchandise, sometimes up to 75% off or more! Can you see why this is my favorite time of year to shop? Who doesn’t love a sale?! Buying perennials, trees, and shrubs this time of the year can save you quite a bit of money, but just keep in mind the plant selection might be picked-over. And although plants may look ragged, as long as they are not suffering from major rot or disease they will likely come back in all their glory the following season. When picking out perennials, look for green growth and buds around the crown of the plant. With trees and shrubs, make sure they have not dropped a substantial portion of their leaves (if this is the case the tree/shrub may be well on its way to plant heaven).

So until the snow begins to melt, keep dreaming of warmer weather and work on that plant wish-list. Once plants begin to arrive, make sure to choose healthy-looking plant material and avoid anything that looks stressed or buggy. To get the best deals, make sure to shop around. Also ask yourself if you want to spend more money and have an instant garden, or save money and wait. Keep this in mind when considering of the best time of year to purchase plants. By having a list and a plan, you can get the most bang-for-your-buck and still get all the plants you want.

But since it’s not time to grow, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! (Because at least then it won’t be so cold)

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