Horticultural bargains in season Sales: Prices are slashed on many plants around the area. Here's how to make sure you get a good deal.

September 01, 1996|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bargain hunters, take heed! Plant sales are in full swing at nurseries and home and garden centers all over the area.

These sales bring out the gambler in many confirmed and aspiring gardeners, myself included. Prices are often very good and frequently irresistible, offering between 20 percent and 50 percent off the usual retail.

Lower prices give you the chance to try plants you might otherwise pass by, which you have been either unable or unwilling to pay for. It's also a chance to get a jump on next year's landscaping.

However, there are questions to ask yourself as you shop. Why are these plants on sale? Which plants will be able to establish themselves before the first frost? And what care do they need to make it through the winter? Fall is the next best time after spring for planting, but these sales present an element of risk as well as opportunity.

In many cases, the nursery or greenhouse is attempting to reduce inventory, so that it will not have to look after the plants over the winter. Sometimes, it has gotten a good deal from a grower on a late-season shipment of perennials, ornamental grasses or shrubs and uses these as promotional items to attract shoppers.

Neither means that there is anything wrong with the plant, tree or shrub -- only perhaps that it has not caught someone else's fancy over the summer. Just make sure your purchase is green, healthy looking and free from bugs and disease.

Risk factors vary according to the type of plant. In general, the smaller the plant and the less hard wood it supports, the better it will take to fall planting.

Perennials are a pretty safe bet, as are biennials. As long as they are given the suitable location, mulch and fertile soil any plant reasonably deserves, there is usually no problem for them to put down good roots and make themselves right at home in the six to 10 weeks before real cold weather sets in.

Please do them the favor, however, of cutting off all existing flowers and seed heads so that they do truly put their energy into roots and not into setting seeds. They cannot do both. This also applies to ornamental grasses.

Many deciduous shrubs will also do well planted at this time of year, as will some small trees. I have been known to throw caution to the wind and plant 12-foot willow trees in October. I am not advising this, but only saying it can be done if you give the tree a sheltered place in the garden, stake it and mulch it well and keep an eye on it like a mother hen.

Small evergreen shrubs and trees are also fairly good selections, although their prime time for transplanting is in the early spring. Their root growth is less vigorous in the fall, however, so make sure the soil is very well prepared for them and make your planting hole extra generous.

Go easy on the fertilizer, as you do not want to stimulate new growth that will not make it through the cold months and will sap the plant's energy. A handful or two of bone meal is usually sufficient.

Evergreen ornamentals can suffer greatly from windburn and dehydration during the winter. It is important to minimize moisture losses that can occur through evaporation. Buy a good antidesiccant, such as Wilt-Pruf, and spray the shrub thoroughly, following the directions on the can.

I have gotten some dandy hollies, junipers and boxwood this way and lost a few, too. The success rate with these outweighs the losses by about 3 to 1, but I know when I purchase these things in the fall that I am taking a chance. Some, like the hollies, have roots that are susceptible to frost damage even when well mulched. Others, like the boxwood, should additionally be sheltered from the drying winds of winter with burlap or opaque plastic windbreaks.

Mid-October is pretty much my cutoff date for planting or transplanting. If you buy after that, the chance is much greater that the plants will not have time to settle in well enough before cold weather stops their growth.

If you buy, but do not plan to plant your new purchases until spring, it is vital that you give the plants a good temporary home in which they can survive the winter. To do this, dig a trench in a partly sunny, sheltered spot. Make the trench a little deeper than the pot or root ball. Set the balled or potted plant into it. The trench should be backfilled with dirt over the top of the pots and mulched heavily (8"-12") with straw or bark mulch. Make sure the plants are kept watered, but not soggy.

More risky choices for planting now include azaleas, and early spring flowering shrubs, such as kerria, lilacs and rhododendrons, which may not have enough time to build up their strength in the fall for both roots and flowers. (Japanese quince is probably one of the few exceptions to this rule.)

Again, in general, the younger the plant, the fewer problems you will encounter.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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