My neighbor Ralph just trotted over with his latest purchase, a huge tray of bedding plants.
"Take a look at these babies!" Ralph exclaimed. So I did.
And I didn't like what I saw.
All of the ornamentals were in full bloom. The tomatoes and peppers had already begun setting fruit. Thick clumps of roots trailed from most of the pots.
A six-pack of impatiens, tall and gangly, bent in the breeze. The stems were ready to break, but Ralph seemed unconcerned.
"Look how big they are!" he said.
I examined the plants more closely. Some of their lower leaves, hidden by handsome flowers, were turning yellow. And when I shook a geranium, a family of whiteflies flew out.
Where did Ralph buy these bedding plants?
"At the supermarket," he said proudly. "Got a good deal, too."
I sighed. It happens every spring. Ralph, and other well-meaning gardeners like him, get swept up in the planting frenzy and buy all the wrong stuff. They try to colorize their yards immediately with annuals that are in full bloom. In a rush to harvest the first tomatoes on the block, they purchase seedlings that are already laden with fruit.
Ralph is like that. Moreover, he likes shopping for bargains to landscape his yard. He buys plants cheaply at discount stores and supermarkets, where the only care the plants receive is a squirt with a hose from a bored bag boy.
Ralph starts each spring with big dreams, but by summer his garden looks tired and shabby. And then all the Ralphs of the world wonder what went wrong.
That's easy. By summer, the plants are exhausted. Forced to flower early, to impress shoppers like Ralph, the plants lack the strength to produce in the garden. Their best growth occurred in the greenhouse.
Simply put, the plants peaked in their pots.
Weekend gardeners can avoid such problems by following a few basic rules for purchasing bedding plants:
* Select only young, leafy, non-flowering plants. Sure, it is hard to pass up blooming petunias, but remember that in buying annuals, beauty is only stem deep. Choose the short, sturdy, bushy specimens over tall and leggy ones that developed too quickly at the expense of leaf growth.
* Examine the bottom of the flower pack for signs of extensive root growth, a sign of trouble. Such plants may be permanently stunted if they have been forced to live too long in cramped quarters. Look for seedlings grown in individual pots or cells. The plants are less prone to transplant shock than those grown close together in "flats," whose roots may have to be cut apart with a knife.
* Check the overall health of the plants. Avoid those with yellowed leaves or misshapen flowers. Are there weeds growing in the pots? Inspect leaves for signs of insect damage. Shake the plants gently to check for whiteflies, spider mites and aphids, all of whom would love to visit your garden. Poke about in the soil a bit, without damaging the roots.
* Deal with reputable garden centers, preferably those that have their own nurseries. Browse before buying. Are the plants kept in a shady area, or are they allowed to sit in the sun all day? Test the owner's knowledge of his merchandise. How long will the plant bloom? Has it been "hardened off" (acclimated to outdoor weather conditions)? Avoid discount stores, roadside vendors and supermarkets, unless you are a plant expert: If you were one, you would have grown your own plants from seed, wouldn't you?
* Buy early for the best selection, but wait until the proper time to put the plants in your garden. Cloudy days are best. Never transplant in the midday sun; the stress can kill the plants.
* To remove a plant from its container, place one hand at soil level, turn the pot upside down and tap it gently on the bottom. The plant should pop out. Never yank it by the stem, no matter how easily you think it will slide out of the pot.
* Plan your garden before purchasing the plants. Make a shopping list and take it along. Otherwise you'll wind up spending gobs of money for plants that you don't have room for. As Ralph did.