Seeds: The Final Installment


This week, the final installment of buying plants by mail.

If you don’t have your catalogs in hand and if you haven’t placed your orders yet, then time is of the essence. The most popular varieties may be sold out, but it can’t hurt to try.

At this point, online ordering or using the phone is your best bet. Also beware that some nurseries charge your credit card when you order while others don’t charge you until the date of shipment.

Keep in mind this one very important thought: what you are buying by mail will be noticeably smaller than what you will find at a local nursery. Your plant may arrive in a 1-quart pot (or smaller), while the garden center offering may be in a 1-gallon pot (or larger). But, you are paying 50- to 80-percent less for many mail order plants.

With a little patience, your plants should be just as big as the garden center offerings within a year or two. Larger trees and shrubs are the obvious exception because they are sold locally in 5-gallon and larger pots. At five- to 10 times the price. Patience.

Shipping is very expensive. There is the cost of the shipping materials—the boxes, the packing and the labor to get everything packed and into the truck—then there’s the ever-increasing cost of getting the plants from the grower to your door. But again, if you want the widest selection of plant material, and if you want to start a collection that includes the rare and unusual, you need to pay the price.

As I mentioned, what you’ll receive will be small; sometimes depressingly small for the price you pay. Quality may vary also, even from the same vendor depending on where your plant is picked from the nursery or lot.

It’s been my experience that the orders that I place early result in the best-quality plants being shipped. Late orders often end up with the dregs, unless the vendor has an overstocked crop and you get lucky.

Many nurseries have sales later in the season. Prices during these sales can be as much as half of what they were months earlier. There are some great bargains to be had during these sales but there are some risks.

First off, the plants that may be left can be the bottom of the barrel. However, this is not always the case and last year I was pleasantly surprised.

Also as important is late-season shipping. It’s much warmer in late May and into June when these sales take place. It’s warmer in places where the vendors might be located and it’s much warmer in the trucks that have to get the plants up here.

When ordering from distant growers, late orders should always be shipped by air. Also try to track your order so you’re home on the day of delivery. You don’t want your expensive plants delivered on a Wednesday and sitting on your front step when you don’t arrive until Friday night from the city.

When ordering from distant nurseries, always ask for a Monday shipping date. This lessens the possibility of your plants sitting in a hot truck over the weekend.

Temper your expectations and know what to expect. Know if you’ve ordered a potted plant, a bare-rooted perennial or tree or a plant shipped in a tube. And if the plant is potted, know what size pot it’s being shipped in. Also, know if your plant is being shipped dormant or actively growing.

You also need to know what to do with the plant once it arrives. For example, lily bulbs should be planted as quickly as possible. That’s within a day or two of arrival. There are some other bulbs that need to be planted quickly as well, but not the fall bulbs like tulips and daffodils. Those can wait for weeks as long as where they are stored is dark and cool.

Try to know where you are going to plant your arrivals when you place your order, not when they arrive. I actually do some tagging in the garden the fall before so I know where things will go.

Of course, if the plants are sold out or if there’s a crop failure I can leave the flags or just pull them out when the snow melts. New plants or last-minute additions are another matter but still you should have an idea where they will go so they don’t languish when they arrive.

I also have a small nursery at my house. I’ve got just about an acre at home so the majority of my new plants go right into the gardens. But plants that don’t have assigned homes will often go right into the nursery that’s only 900 square feet.

The nursery has perennials, trees and shrubs in it. If a tree or shrub arrives in a pot I may plant it potted or replant it in a larger pot then sink it into the nursery soil. This allows the roots to grow and expand but keeps them confined and under control for a few years while the above-ground shoot system gets some size to it.

Planting potted plants in the pots also gives me time to find planting spots and it also makes transplanting very easy. It also allows for transplanting just about any time instead of when the plant is dormant.

Simply pop the plant out of the ground, deposit the plant and replant in the final planting spot. Sometimes it’s that easy but it can be trickier when the roots expand through the drainage holes or wind around the pot. In these cases, the digging and depotting has to be more careful and thoughtful but it’s still much less stress than digging the plant and moving it bare root.

Most of the plants that you receive will arrive with planting instructions. Many catalogs also tell you what to do when the plants arrive.

Some plants and roots have been in cold storage over the winter, such as many fruit trees. These may need rehydration or soaking prior to planting, so reading the planting instructions is very, very important.

Planting anything too deep is a death knell for all but a few bulbs. Always err on the side of shallower planting, especially with trees and shrubs. And if a graft is involved, never bury the graft or cover it with soil.

Well rooted potted plants can be planted right away or held a few days as long as they are watered. They’ve been in boxes for two to four days so don’t just put them in full sun or they’ll burn. If you need to plant them in a sunny spot, shade them lightly for a couple of days with a sheet of newspaper or white pieces of row-cover material. This should also be done if a frost or freeze is expected.

When planting taller trees, such as a new magnolia that may arrive as a 4-foot-tall shoot with a few branches, make sure the tree is staked. The purpose of the stake is to steady the new tree until its roots have well anchored. The stake should be outside the root ball (pot circumference) and the tie to the trunk should be loose and in a figure-eight that will allow the trunk to move a bit in the wind. Do not tie it tight to the stake. The stake should be away from the truck by 4- to 8 inches, depending on the root ball diameter.

All newly arrived plants, be they bare rooted or potted, need to be watered once planted. The frequency of the watering depends on the weather and size of the plant but overwatering will end up with drowning the roots, and underwatering may result in the wilting or death of your new plants.

When in doubt, water twice a week and deeply. Don’t use any fertilizer but a bio-stimulant or an organic root stimulant will benefit anything newly planted. Follow the directions though as you can overdo it.

Lastly, be patient. Dormant plants can take several weeks to show new signs of life, especially if it’s a cold spring.

Spring planted lilies may not show any above-ground growth for weeks or months. Smaller perennials may take two growing seasons to fill in but by their second year in your garden they should look great. Keep growing.

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