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What Will We Garden: The Search for Healthy Local Plants, Part 1

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Nursery shopping, USDA Hardiness Zones, Garden centers, Choosing the right plants,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgBack in February, I attended a program at the local college titled, “What Will We Eat: The Search for Healthy Local Food.” The answer to the question sounds pretty obvious: you go to a local store, fruit market, or farm, and buy healthy, locally grown or produced food, and Voila! Search over. There was more to the program though; after watching a short film of the same name, there was a discussion led by a panel of organic small farmers, and local Transition Initiative members.

Those in attendance heard history about how we ended up getting so detached from our food, the need for community involvement to reinvent our food system, and how we need to think about where our food comes from; it would not only produce a healthier lifestyle, but also healthier communities, both socially and economically.

Currently in this country, there’s disconnection between consumers and local farms. People should – and want – to know their farmers. Buying local bridges that distance, bringing communities closer together. Economically, communities are revitalized as money is recycled back into the local system – an average of 80 cents per dollar. It’s not just agricultural businesses – the same is true of all locally produced goods. Horticultural businesses are another example. Do you know where your plants come from?

Where are your plants grown?

A Sunday afternoon in early April, Keith and I went on a date to the home improvement box-store (both of us work full time, and often more than 5 minutes spent together without the kids is considered a “date”). We wanted to get fencing for the vegetable garden before it was time to plant. On the way to the fencing, we passed through a flurry of activity – the store’s garden center had just opened for the season. Shasta daisies, perennial salvia, and daylilies were in full bloom. Hostas were fully leafed out. Hanging baskets of impatiens and petunias flew off the shelves into people’s carts. Petunias!!! In April! In Michigan! If I would have looked, I probably would have found tomato and pepper plants, too.

I didn’t have time to look, though. Keith quickly ushered me passed the plants and on to the fencing section of the store ... not because I’d have the urge to buy something, but because I’m sure he was afraid I’d warn people that it was way too early for daisies to be blooming and to put annuals outside. Shoot, our perennials at the nursery were just starting to poke their noses out of the ground after winter.

It’d be a full month before our two shade houses full of hosta were lush and green again at the nursery.

Hosta houses at the nursery

And a more than month later before we got our first annual delivery, and I scooped up these annual beauties as they were coming off the truck. It’d be two weeks after that when I planted them in my flower boxes, dragging them in the garage every night for two weeks to avoid frost damage, and back out during the day.

Tuberous begonia in boxes

I can’t imagine what the tuberous begonias would look like now if I’d planted them in April ... actually, I can imagine; they’d look quite dead.

There’s a reason the hostas and Shasta daisies at the nursery were just nubs poking out of the ground back in early April. That is what they are supposed to look like that time of year here. Our last median frost date is toward the end of May, and this year we had frequent frost right up until that date. All those impatiens and petunias purchased at the box store have long since turned to mush, unless they were brought in every night. The Shasta daisies and hostas will have died back to the ground; though the roots will have survived, the top growth will be that much further behind than if they had been hardened off, instead of forced inside a hot house.

Yet the box-stores push oh-so-tender annuals and fully leafed out and blooming perennials earlier and earlier each year – much earlier than Mother Nature’s schedule. A regular customer at the nursery admitted to buying a number of annual hanging baskets at the garden center of the same home improvement store the same weekend we bought our fencing. He knew they would die in the upcoming predicted frost (and they did), despite the employee’s assurance that they’d “be fine to leave outside.” He wanted some color for a weekend bash, though, and the baskets to him were expendable. But not all of us can afford to shell out $20 per basket just for one weekend. We want our annuals to last all season, and our trees, shrubs, and perennials to be healthy and look good after we plant them.

In addition to offering a large variety of healthy plants, there are several things that differentiate a good garden center or nursery from a mediocre one. In this two-part blog I’ll cover some things to look for in the local garden center, and a few things you can do too, that will give you the best start in your gardening endeavors. Part I of this topic deals with what you can do to make the most of your nursery or garden center experience to ensure what you purchase there will thrive in your garden.

Do your homework first. Before heading out to the garden center, make sure you know the conditions of the site you are planting. Is it a sunny site, or shady – or a combination of both? If it’s a combination, what part of the day does the sun hit; morning or afternoon, or is it dappled throughout the day?

Garden with partial shade

What type of soil do you have: good soil, rich in organic matter? A few inches, or even a foot or two of top soil generally does not count for much – the roots of most trees, shrubs, and perennials go far deeper than that. What’s beneath? Does it lean more toward sand or clay? Is the area dry, or consistently wet? Knowing all of these things will assist the nursery personnel in helping you choose plants that are suited to your growing conditions.

Know the hardiness zone of your area. (Click on the map to go to the United States National Aboretum interactive version.)

USDA Hardiness Zones Map

This is especially important if you live in a region of overlapping zones. Here, along the shore of Lake Michigan, we live in Zone 6. Just a few miles inland, or in the Chicago area and Indiana where many of our customers reside, it’s Zone 5. Plants are labeled with their hardiness zone, and knowing what zone you live in will ensure you choose plants that will survive your area.

A friend of mine put in a large, perennial ornamental grass garden, including a number of red fountain grass (Pennisetum s. rubrum). When I told him that the fountain grass wouldn’t survive our winter, he was insistent it would, explaining the garden center employee led him to their perennial section where they kept their ornamental grasses. “Look!” he said, showing me the label that read “Perennial.” I flipped over the label, and showed him where it said “Zones 9-11.” He was still adamant, “But it says it’s a perennial!” And it is ... but not where we live. The garden center was wrong presenting it as a perennial (I won’t mention the name of the garden center, but HA! it was at a box-store), but if he’d had known our hardiness zone, he would not have been so disappointed when none of them came back the following spring (he was still insistent it was a perennial until spring, when I had to refrain from saying “told ya so”).

If you go to the nursery with a specific plant in mind, do just a bit of research to get its botanical name first. There is a reason for that hard-to-pronounce, funny-sounding Latin. Different plants may have the same or similar common names, or the one plant can have dozens of common names. Or just because that’s what grandma always called it, doesn’t mean that’s the name everyone else uses. Every plant has only one botanical name, though, and armed with that name, you’ll avoid confusion when looking for the plant.

When size matters. You’ve decided to do some price comparisons via phone, e-mail, or websites before hitting the garden centers. Try to avoid basing your decision on pot size without seeing the plant first. A lilac in a 5-gallon pot offered at $20 may not be a better deal than a $35 lilac in the same pot size if the lower priced one is leggy and scraggly. Instead of asking how much they charge for a plant in a certain pot size, ask for the height and width of shrubs. When shopping for trees there are some general terms to keep in mind. Young trees are often categorized as “whips,” “lightly branched,” “branched,” and “heavily branched.” When comparing prices on more mature trees, ask about the height, fullness of the crown, and caliper (or diameter) of the trunk.

Be open to suggestions. You’ve done your homework: you know your site conditions, and have done some price comparisons before arriving at the nursery. You have your heart set on rhododendrons. Or maybe it’s a bed of roses you have in mind. But rhododendrons won’t grow in heavy soils, and roses fail to bloom in too much shade. A good garden center employee will not sell you a plant just to sell you a plant; he or she will help suggest plants that are best suited for your particular situation, even if it means selling down, or selling nothing at all. “Can I talk you out of a Japanese maple?” I asked a customer recently, after she told me where it was to be planted. I knew it’d be an expensive mistake; Japanese maples aren’t cheap. She opted for a butterfly bush and a couple of ornamental grasses which I showed her instead – all of which can be cut down each fall, and will not get crushed under the mounds of snow left by the plows in the area she wanted to plant. It was over a $200 difference in price to her advantage. I would much rather have a customer tell me they appreciate my honesty then I would sell them something I know they’ll be disappointed in because it will flounder, or die in their site conditions.

I hope you may find these suggestions helpful. Success in a garden is a culmination of many factors. Knowing a few simple things about your area is a good way to get off to a great start.

Shopper at the garden center

Next up: Good garden centers, and getting the most out of them.

Also check out "What Will We Garden ... , Part 2."

michelle house
6/26/2010 1:24:05 PM

Cindy, it is the good stuff that rubbed off on me. lol. The teepee is getting there, really dry here, so I gotta water alot. Hugs Michelle

cindy murphy
6/23/2010 3:23:02 PM

Hey, Michelle. That thing that rubbed off on you - I hope you consider it a good influence and not a bad one. Let me know when you run out of containers and are still buying plants - I'll send in reinforcements. There has to be a Plant Buyers Anonymous or some such support group. Hope your teepee for the grandkids grows big and lush. Our bean teepee in the kid's garden at work is underwater with all the rain we've had.

michelle house
6/23/2010 1:38:28 PM

Hi Cindy, nice article, I am doing some container gardening this year, bought some lavender plants, and am growing a plant teepee for the grands. Your love of gardening has rubbed off on me. lol Hugs Michelle

cindy murphy
6/10/2010 9:29:36 PM

Hi, Dave. It would seem you are right in that if you would have waited until it was actually time to plant your tomatoes, all that might have been left would be a few stragglers that have been passed over by everyone else - Charlie Brown tomato plants. We were just talking about this the other day at work. I hate to keep placing blame on the box-stores, but they start earlier and earlier each year with annuals and vegetables. Local nurseries and growers - although they don't start nearly as early as the box-stores - have upped the date annuals are for sale just to remain competitive. It used to be not so long ago, that annual season didn't even start here until Memorial Day weekend, and went through July 4th. Now, we get our first hanging baskets, and potted geraniums in for Mother's Day weekend, and it continues with the rest full blast for the rest of May. Here it is, not even mid-June, and annual and bedding plant season is already trickling to a close. People who normally wait (as the temperatures would indicate they should) until Memorial Day will have a hard time finding everything they're looking for. That's why I scooped up those begonias when I first saw them - I knew they'd be gone if I waited. It's kind of sad, actually - it's as if we've been conditioned to think we need to have it now, instead of having the patience to wait until it's time.

nebraska dave
6/10/2010 2:31:25 PM

Cindy, thanks for the mountain of information. It will take me awhile to read through and digest it all. I’ve discovered even if the hot weather plants can be put out in the garden many times the soil temperature will not be warm enough and all the plants do is sit there shivering wondering what place they have come to. With the cold Spring and as you say the early sale of plants. I’m forced to buy tomatoes and peppers earlier than I should or face the scraggly left over plants because all the uninformed gardens have bought the best looking plants to die of frost bite. I care for them until the weather actually warms up enough to set them out. They decorated the Poor Man’s Patio during the day and decorated the foyer during the night for a good two weeks. They just seem to do better if the soil has warmed up a bit before putting them out to fend for them selves. I’m not sure about where my plants came from but I know the nursery that I bought them from is a family nursery that’s been in business for almost 40 years. They have the best looking plants for miles around. Their plants have always produced well for me. It’s also the most reasonable priced plants and really is the best of both worlds. This was great post as usual. Thank you for always sharing your wisdom in the plant world.

cindy murphy
6/10/2010 9:59:25 AM

You're canning beans already, Pam?!!! Our first planting...or I should say what's left of our first planting, because the rabbits bit of nearly every plant down to the quick almost as soon as they only about three inches tall; sucessive plantings over a period of two weeks have come up, and are just one or two inches out of the ground. Just goes to show the big difference in our zones. Glad to hear your garden is doing great. After the rabbit incident with our beans, and our mustard greens bolting early, I hope we can pull out a good rest of the season too! You have a great day also.

6/10/2010 9:28:44 AM

Hi Cindy, I usually grow my tomatoes from seeds but this year decided to buy some plants at the feed and seed store when we bought out garden seeds. We planted the tomatoes when we planted the garden in middle April. Those were the most pitiful looking plants I ever saw. 2 weeks later they were still the same size as when I planted them. They had plenty of compost, too. We ended up replacing most of them. Next year I know I will be getting my tomato seeds going early. Loved your article. We are right on that middle Ga. zone on the map. This year-no late frost and the garden is doing great. I am canning green beans right this minute! Have a great day. Pam

cindy murphy
6/10/2010 9:19:45 AM

I'm sure you're right, Shannon; after a long winter, people can't wait to have some color in their yard, and feel like they are getting a jump-start on the season if they get their tomatoes in early (especially in climates like ours, when the growing season is short). The problem, though, is that many customers, seeing the plants for sale too early, are under the impression that because they are being offered in the stores, that it's okay to plant at that time. Misinformed garden center employees compound the problem by supplying incorrect information. Sigh. If I had a nickel for everytime a customer asked why we didn't have geraniums in March or April like the box-stores did, I wouldn't need to be wearing the winter coat I still had on at that time....because I'd have enough money to vacation somewhere warm! Thanks for stopping by.

cindy murphy
6/10/2010 9:01:59 AM

Thanks for your comments, Mountain Woman. Start saving those plastic milk jugs! I think you'd have quite a demand for your tomato plants if you sold them at a farmer's market next year. At the nursery, we don't grown our own annuals or vegetable plants, but buy them in from local growers. One of our growers supplies us with nice big and fat tomato plants he grows in milk jugs with the tops cut off (handle still attached for easy transporting). Beautiful plants, and they sell in no time. I think with organically grown heirloom varieties, you'd be quite a hit at the farm markets! Enjoy your day.

s.m.r. saia
6/10/2010 6:11:25 AM

Cindy, thanks for this very interesting and useful post. I think that putting all these plants out so early is to capture the business of those that just can't wait for spring anymore (um...guilty). However, even feeling that way, I know better than to set my summer veggies out before I can be sure that a frost won't kill them. I will say that (more so in the past than now) I've figured that it must be the right time for plants or they wouldn't be there for sale...I see now how very wrong this is. Can't wait to read the second part.

mountain woman
6/10/2010 5:42:20 AM

What a great, informative article. I sure wish I had you around years ago when I was making every mistake you mentioned. Now, with Mountain Man, it's so different for me. We were in a big box store a couple of weeks ago and they had their tomato plants out. What scraggly, unhealthy things they were and they were over $5.00 for a tiny, unhealthy plant. I thought of my beautiful tomatoes, so lush and green, that I had grown from a local organic seeds. What a difference. We are building a bigger greenhouse and I'm expanding my planting as well. This year all my extra plants went to friends but I'm thinking of selling them next year especially after I saw the cost and condition of the big box store ones. Your article points out reasons it is so important to be familiar with your environment, to think and shop locally and to be an advocate for planting only those species which are belong to an area. Beautiful photos as well. I really enjoy your posts. I always learn quite a bit from you and leave feeling enriched.