Everyone knows if you want to grow tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers or any other vegetables that need a longer stretch of warmth to fruit than we have here in Maryland, you need to put plants (sometimes called transplants) -- not seeds -- in the ground in late spring.
Gardeners have long had a choice about how to do that. We could grab whatever varieties of vegetable transplants the garden center offered in mid-April. Or, if we wanted to grow eight different tomatoes, five kinds of sweet peppers and some really wild hot peppers to say nothing of leeks, we could start them from seed -- indoors in late February -- ourselves. That's something few have the time, energy or equipment for these days.
"Both parents are working, and people are looking for something they can throw in the garden quickly without worrying with starting the seeds," says Mark Willis, vegetable product manager for Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y.
Even though we're pressed for time, for most gardeners the "wow factor" is still big. We don't want ordinary. We want out-of-the-ordinary things that burst with flavor, look great and amaze the neighbors. Fortunately, the wow factor is big for seedsmen, too. In choosing what to grow for transplants, they pick their most popular seed varieties. They also listen to customer requests and requests from their staff.
"I wouldn't want a garden without a 'Brandywine' tomato because of the great flavor," says Dottie Shultz, catalog manager at Jung Seeds in Randolph, Wis., which sells 'Brandywine' plants. "And 'Mortgage Lifter' [tomato] is hard to beat on a BLT."
In the past few years, there has been a mini-explosion of transplants on sale through the mail, including 'Giant Belgium' pink tomato; 'Blue de Solaise' leek; 'Giant Marconi' hybrid frying pepper; 'Blushing Beauty,' a sweet pepper that starts out pale yellow and gradually morphs to a beautiful peachy orange; and 'Thai Dragon,' a hot pepper for Asian cooking.
The mail or the mall
While both garden centers and catalogs sell transplants, the difference between the two -- at least currently -- is range of choices. A large garden center might carry six tomato varieties. Taken together, the catalogues listed here offer 60, including heirlooms, hybrids, paste and cherry types.
"Our goal is to offer some that aren't usually available at the local garden center," notes Shultz.
Catalogs generally differ from one another in their transplant varieties. They also differ in the numbers of plants in each offer. Some sell six-packs of a single variety. Others will mix and match in a four- or six-cell pack. Burpee offers three plants at a crack. Yet most also sell collections of eggplant, sweet pepper, hot pepper and tomato seedlings.
"That way, you can try five different tomatoes [for example] without buying 30 plants," says Willis.
Seed Savers Exchange offers six-packs that you can fill with a choice of 13 tomato varieties and / or eight hot and sweet peppers plus 'Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry.' Harris Seeds sells an eggplant collection that includes two plants each of 'Classic F1' (a big purple stuffer), 'Little Fingers' (slim grillers) and one of white 'Ghostbusters.'
Shopping or shipping
While it's tough to gauge optimal shipping dates, seed companies work hard to make plant delivery dates coincide with the best planting time at the destination.
"We give approximate dates of delivery based on last frost dates for an area, but we monitor the weather there, too," says Don Zeidler, director of marketing at W. Atlee Burpee in Warminster, Pa.
Even with careful timing, weather at the destination can turn cruel. Last year, my hot pepper transplants from Harris arrived on time, but the weather was cold and wet. Nevertheless, they held in their shipping containers for two weeks on a warm porch with daily watering.
"If you can't plant them for some reason, and they're in a plug, you'd want to transplant them into a container," Shultz advises.
For all shipped transplants, open immediately and read handling instructions carefully. In Maryland, Burpee plants, grown in the next hardiness zone north, and field-grown plants (as opposed to greenhouse grown) arrive ready to put in the ground unless the weather is extremely hot, cold or windy, which parches young plants. (The best transplanting weather is calm, warm and overcast.) Plants from farther away may need a little "hardening off," i.e., acclimating to your growing conditions before planting.
"Put them outside in the sun for a couple of hours the first day," says Willis, "then a few more hours the next day and the next for about a week before planting."
Shipping time might be an inexact science, but packaging has become an art form. "We've really perfected the shipping so they are like babies in a crib protected by a lot of blankets," says Willis.