By Therese Ciesinski, In The Dirt Newsletter Editor
It’s hard to resist the siren call of the garden center this time of year. The gardening itch is in full force. Bare spots in the garden, plus planters, containers, and window boxes all call out for the vivid colors and fullness of bloom that annual flowers are designed for.
Before bringing those flats of pansies, petunias, marigolds, cosmos, or impatiens home, make sure you’re getting your money’s worth by choosing the healthiest plants possible. Fresh-looking foliage and lots of blooms should indicate a happy, healthy plant, but don’t be fooled. What’s growing inside the pot is as important as what’s growing above if you expect to enjoy an entire summers-worth of annual flowers. Here’s what to look for:
Check the overall condition of the plant. Is it bushy and vigorous: putting out new growth, and packed with flower buds? That’s what you want. Or is it wilting, past its prime, or is crushed or broken in key spots? Skip that one; it probably won’t recover.
Check the potting mix. Is it a muddy mess, desert dry, or just right? Most annuals need soil that’s moist, with a cake-like, friable texture that roots can cling to. That indicates that air and water can move through the mix. Water stress can be a death knell for plants, even if they’re not showing symptoms at the moment. Over-watering, which rots the roots, can be as bad as under-watering.
Do the leaves, stems, or flowers look diseased, dried out, or chewed? Are there weeds in the pot? Do you see insects on or around the plant and pot? Check the underside of the pot for slugs.
While you’re looking under there, notice whether roots are growing out of the drainage holes. That means the plant is outgrowing its pot. Plants with roots growing out of container holes are common if they’ve been sitting around for weeks. While it’s not the best sign, it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, as long the plant isn’t too stressed, and you plant it as soon as possible. What’s worse is if the plant is root bound.
The way to tell that is to slip the plant, soil, roots and all most of the way out of its pot. When a plant is root bound, the container is filled with more roots than soil. The roots are in a tangled ball, often circling the container. Many are dead. Usually by the time this happens, the plant isn’t looking too spiffy on top, either.
If you have a choice between a root bound plant and one that isn’t, the choice is obvious. But plants that are root bound can be salvaged, as long as they are watered well, treated gently, and are planted quickly in a location where the roots can spread out. You may need to uncircle or even score the root ball with a sharp knife to create space for the roots to grow outward.
When buying annual flowering plants, what you want to see clinging to the soil are roots that are white and succulent-looking, not slimy or dried out, with enough of them relative to the amount of top growth. Scarce, thread-like roots and a container that’s mostly potting soil means the plant has some growing to do. If you buy it, grow it in the pot for a few weeks while the roots catch up.
It’s easy to fill your car with plastic pots and flats of transplants even if you don’t know where to plant them all.
Stores often cram plants cheek by jowl, so that they get tangled. Plus it’s inevitable that if they sit there long enough, they’re going to grow into one another. Be careful separating the ones you want from the rest.
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