By Susan Martin for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners
If you’re like me, on the first warm Saturday in the spring, I can’t resist the urge to head out to my local garden centers to see what’s in store this year. I don’t always have my garden fully planned out before I shop, but because I follow the three tips I’m sharing with you here, I know it will be a success.
To establish and grow a flourishing garden, no matter where you live, follow these fundamentals.
You might assume that every plant offered for sale in the spring is healthy, vigorous, and ready to take off in your garden. While that’s true for most plants, these traits are important to look for when you shop.
Overall healthy appearance. Observe the plant as a whole. Does it look healthy? Its stems should feel strong, its foliage should be deeply pigmented, and the size of the plant should look proportional to the pot it is growing in. Plants with multiple shoots that fill the pot more fully are harder to find early in the season, but snap those beauties up if you find them.
Signs of new growth. Check to see if the plant is growing and is healthy enough to sustain new foliage. That indicates the roots are strong. In early spring, strong roots are more important than a large canopy of foliage—that will develop as the temperatures and light levels rise.
Straight, non-crossing branches. On woody plants, check to see if the main stem or trunk coming out of the soil is straight. A crook in the main stem low on the plant can make it weaker and more prone to damage as the plant matures. Also look for branches that are crossing or rubbing and try to choose a specimen with straight branches. You’ll need to prune any that are crossed when you get the plant home since rubbing creates open wounds which are more vulnerable to pests.
No signs of reversion. When buying plants with variegated foliage, look for those that have no reversion. That means if the plant is supposed to have leaves with stripes, or is supposed to be a specific color, the whole plant should exhibit those same traits. If you’re looking to buy a variegated weigela with green and white leaves, for example, and one plant has several shoots with solid green leaves, choose a different one.
No seeds present. Especially when shopping for annuals and perennials in the spring, a plant that has already formed seeds is not the one you want to buy. That’s because forming seeds is often the last thing the plant does before it stops flowering and goes dormant. If a plant forms seeds early, it can be a sign of distress.
Ideally, look for varieties that don’t set seeds at all or have a low seed set. (This information may be included on the plant label.) Such plants won’t require deadheading to keep them in bloom or to prevent their spread. A good example of this is Superbells® calibrachoa. Unlike many calibrachoa, Superbells don’t set seeds so their spent flowers don’t need to be removed for the plant to continue flowering all season. If your calibrachoa tend to die out by midsummer and you don’t regularly deadhead them, it may be because they have set seed and are finished for the season.
By choosing to group plants together like Echinacea, Kniphofia, Bidens, Gaillardia, Lantana, and Sedum which all enjoy full sun and don’t need a lot of fertilizer, you’re setting up your garden for success.
2. Choose the Right Plants for the Right Places
This age old advice continues to ring as true today as ever. Garden smarter, not harder, by choosing to grow plants that will naturally thrive where you plant them instead of trying to change your conditions to match the plants’ needs.
If you have high pH (alkaline) soil, it’s easier to accept the fact that your hydrangeas will bloom pink instead of blue and that you might not be able to grow huge, flourishing rhododendrons. Instead, choose to grow plants that will flourish in your alkaline soil. If you have clay soil, choose plants that enjoy heavier, moist soil instead of planting species that thrive in well-drained, drier soil. You could spend your days amending your soil and trying to change its alkalinity, or you could be enjoying well-adapted plants in the growing conditions your garden naturally provides.
Take some time to get to know your garden culture. Send a sample of your soil in to your local Extension Office to have it tested and learn what it is comprised of. Watch how the sun moves and lights up certain parts of your garden more than others through the seasons. Look for deer, rabbits, and other critters that also call your garden home, so you’ll know if you need to look for plants they don’t like to eat. Doing all of these things will guide you in choosing the right plants for the right places.
When you garden in containers, even if they are self-watering, starting with a strong foundation is critical.
3. Good Soil, Plant Food and Tools Make a Difference
Just like when building a new house, the location, foundation, and right tools make a critical difference when growing a garden. Consider carefully where any new garden beds will be located. Are they near a water source? Is there adequate sunlight to grow what you desire there? Does that area tend to flood when it rains? Will the area need to be built up to provide better drainage?
Similarly, when you garden in containers, it’s important to follow the fundamentals. Make sure your pot has a drainage hole so the plant won’t get waterlogged. Fill the pot completely with high quality potting soil. Don’t add old water bottles, packing peanuts or other filler material in the bottom of the pot as it can lead to a perched water table which causes plants to suffer. Mix continuous release plant food into the soil before you plant. It will slowly deliver nutrients to your plants over time and acts as a reserve between feedings with water soluble plant food.
Garden smarter by using tools to make the job easier. For in-ground plantings, a Twist ‘n Plant® gardening auger will make quick and easy work of planting. It’s available in several sizes so you can match the best auger to the job at hand. If watering your containers consistently is difficult or takes too much time, consider installing a WaterWise® drip irrigation system or using self-watering AquaPots®. They’ll do the watering for you.
Choosing the best location for your garden, establishing a good foundation, and using the appropriate tools to get the job done will set your plants up for success from the beginning and they’ll require less maintenance in the long run as a result. Such steps are definitely worth your time and effort.