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

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Back 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?

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.

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.

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?

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.)

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.

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

Also check out “What Will We Garden … , Part 2.”