The Hampton Gardener: Recasting the garden

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There have been two very interesting trends in the gardening world in the past couple of years and I suspect that both of them will catch up with us this year. Each trend is directly related to our current economic situation and while one threatens the very future of the horticulture industry, the other virtually guarantees its survival.

Needless to say, this year is going to be one of transformation, revamping and refreshing as we learn to garden with smaller budgets, but I’ve got ideas and tips that will make it easier and will probably give you a much greater sense of gardening satisfaction.

But first, some thoughts on the trends.

We’ve just come through a long period of horticultural gratification in which everything had to be instant and large. Within weeks of a house being built or changing ownership it had an instant “mature” garden. Nurseries were selling trees that were huge and costing tens of thousands of dollars and those who could afford them were able to install instant landscapes that once planted appeared as if they’d been in place for years. Even you and I could go to a local garden center and buy potted perennials in 2- to 5-gallon pots giving us plants like astilbes, peonies and hostas that could make a bare piece of land into a fully planted English-style island border fully in bloom in just weeks.

Those days may be gone now, at least for a while, and we may have to learn to make do with less as it becomes our responsibility to make the 1-gallon perennial fill out over a period of a couple of years. We may even have to plant smaller trees and actually wait for them to fill in over a period of years, naturally.

What a novel idea!

A couple of years ago, I began to notice an alarming number of garden centers and large wholesale growers from coast to coast going out of business. The pressures of property development around the nurseries just made property values too, well, valuable and even longtime family operations were sold at the lure of lucrative financial returns as condos and McMansions filled in the spaces. Famous nurseries in New Jersey and Massachusetts were sold off. Wholesale growers with large greenhouse ranges in the Midwest, and West sold out, merged or simply sold their trademarks to other companies in other areas. Famous seed houses were sold and one of the top rose growers changed hands.

We are the ones who suffer though, as the quality and diversity of the plant material available to us leaves the market. We see it in fewer new introductions, reduced stock of certain types of plants and some plants just disappearing from the market. In 10 years, someone will see this as an opportunity and the voids will be filled. But for now, searchers of the unusual and new will find their searches even more difficult.

But there is a bright side. Two years ago we also saw a trend moving away from landscapes that simply satisfied the eye and ego and moving toward landscapes that were practical and environmentally sensitive. The edible landscape movement took hold and there was a dramatic jump in the sale of fruit trees across the country. I’ve even noticed the change in e-mails that I get with more and more questions about where to buy fruit trees and how to maintain them. The second part of this trend became obvious last year. Seed supply companies and nurseries who provide vegetable starter plants (cell packs) and vegetable seeds were reporting increases in sales from 10 to 30 percent.

There were two reasons for this: First, there were a number of health issues with store-bought vegetables that included peppers, tomatoes and greens. Well, you’ll never guess where the largest increase in seed and starter plants was? The sale of tomato, pepper and salad seeds skyrocketed. Then there was the dramatic doubling in fuel costs. Almost overnight it cost twice as much to ship that head of lettuce from California to New York and sowing a few seeds and waiting a few weeks for your home-grown spring mix suddenly made lots of sense and tasted sooooo much better than $4- and $5-a-head lettuce. Even the growers caught on as they began to buy up farmland in the Northeast realizing that it was much cheaper to send produce from New England to the eastern markets than from California.

So, here we are. We can now afford to drive to the garden center again, but we may not be able to afford what’s there. What’s a gardener to do? Improvise, my friends, and learn what you can do on your own or with a little help and a book or two.

Did you know that a smaller tree that’s transplanted and put into your landscape is more likely to survive and thrive than the same tree, but of a larger size? And that 3-gallon astilbe, hosta or daylily? The one that’s totally root-bound in the pot? It may cost you $15 or even $20, but why not buy it, split it into three plants with a sharp spade and get three for the price of one? You may not get such a great show from the split plant this year, but it sure will be spectacular next year.

And have you ever ordered bare root plants? Let’s say you were going to spend $100 on some perennials for this year’s garden. That might buy you four to eight potted and mature perennials. That same $100 used to buy bare root perennials could easily get you 20 to 30 of the same plants that would be delivered in March or April, planted by you and just a short year later they’d be large specimen plants in your garden. You get all the joy of planting and growing them and the great satisfaction of seeing the fruits and flowers of your labor.

Why buy bare root? While local garden centers offer plants in flower and near mature size they can carry only a tiny selection of what’s really available to consumers via catalogs and the internet. Roses from nurseries from Texas to Canada. Peonies directly from the growers. Irises shipped within days of being harvested on the farm and lilies shipped two-day air from West Coast nurseries where they’d been dug and shipped earlier the same week. The question that you have to ask though, and this may take a bit of research, is: Are you buying from a middleman or directly from the grower? Don’t be shy. Get on the phone, call their 800 number and ask or e-mail their customer service department. Some growers farm out some of their plant materials and will have other specialty growers grow what they do best and then drop ship the material to you or deliver it directly to the supplier who simply packages it and sends it on to us. Some nurseries have material that’s grown overseas (as in most tulips and spring flower bulbs) and receive them in refrigerated containers where they remain dormant prior to being repackaged and send on to us. Some perennials are done like this and some are dug here in the U.S. and stored in special refrigeration equipment so they are ready for shipment in the early spring without the need of field digging when the fields may still be snow covered in Michigan or Minnesota.

In the flower garden and vegetable garden you can extend your growing season and dramatically widen the types and varieties of plants that you’re growing by purchasing your usual cell packs at the local garden center, but also sowing seeds of the same plants, just different varieties either directly into your garden soil or starting them early indoors. For just about every vegetable I can imagine that’s sold in garden centers there are probably dozens of other varieties that you can grow from seed that are unusual, better tasting and maybe even easier to grow. Why limit yourself to two or three tomato varieties when you can spend $10 to $15 on seeds (that you can save for several years) and grow 20 different types instead of five plants of four types?

All of the vine vegetables like the squashes, cukes, melons and pumpkins do so much better when started indoors a few weeks early in large peat pots or are directly sown outdoors in their hills and mounds. You can buy some cell packs of a few varieties just as insurance but again there are sooooo many varieties that simply aren’t grown for the retail market that you can simply and easily grow in your garden.

Like marigolds and cosmos? Fine, buy some cell packs of the varieties that are at the garden center, but at the same time buy some seed packets of the more unusual varieties or different colors and plant the seeds while planting the cell packs. The seeded plants will fill in later in the season just as your store-bought plants are fading. And even though some of our East End garden centers carry some of the most magnificent plants available, the seed catalogs are brimming with hundreds of varieties that just aren’t grown for pack sales, but you can grow them right at home. There are even plants that you can’t get at garden centers or you rarely find. In the annual category, sweet peas come to mind. These are wonderful garden plants that do so well out here in the first half of the gardening season (it gets too hot for them later in the season) and yet they don’t do well in cell packs or pots. But you can sow them directly into the soil as early as late March or start them indoors in peat pots which get directly planted so the delicate roots don’t get damaged since you plant the pot which quickly breaks down in the moist warming soil.

Are you buying bales of peat moss every year? Why in the world are you doing that?

Peat moss is called a renewable resource, but now we’re not so sure as it takes a long, long time to regenerate a peat bog. In addition, peat is of such little nutritional value in the garden and so expensive to truck down from Canada that it’s really pointless to use. Instead there’s this magical stuff you can make right in your own back yard and it’s called compost. It does the same things as peat moss and so much more. It costs nothing to make, is one of the most ecological and green things you can do on your property and yet so few gardeners take the little bit of time to learn composting and do it. This stuff will build your soil, feed your plants, control your weeds, reduce your water usage and save you money.

Next week: saving a bundle on roses, perennials, trees, shrubs and where in the world can you get help? Keep growing.

Andrew Messinger has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between homes and gardens in Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.

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