75 percent off on all stock! It’s like the siren’s song to gardeners this time of year when big boxes and garden centers deeply discount their remaining inventory to move it out the door.
I’ve picked up some great bargains in late summer. But, bargains aren’t thrifty if you bring home plants that are doomed to fall, because they stressed and/or diseased.
Bargains can be had if you know which plants will take off and grow and which ones to avoid at any price.
Here’s some tips on how to find healthy plants:
Recognize plant vigor. A stocky, deep green plant with dense foliage is bursting with energy and will establish a healthy root system before the ground freezes. Turn over pots to look for roots barely sticking out of drainage holes. This is also a sign of plant vitality.
My garden is filled with plenty of end-of-summer bargains, but I'm picky about what I buy. I want plants to establish healthy root systems, not bring disease to my yard and thrive.
These Mugo pines are terrific bargains at 75 percent off, and they are healthy. The dwarf conifers are excellent landscape elements as they grow slowly and stay small.
Look for disease. If you see any sign of rot, such as soft, black spots at the base of the stem, splotches on the leaves, or bumps on the roots, don't buy the plant. Gray or white fuzzy spots are also signs of fungal diseases. Browned and yellow-spotted lower leaves indicate a viral disease, which is disaster waiting to be planted.
Pass up plants that are infested with insects. Brush plant tops with your hand to see if insects fly off, and look closely at the new growth for scale. Swarms of white flies and aphids are trouble, as is any chewing or sucking insect. Not only do they stress the plant, but you bring home trouble that will spread throughout your garden.
Pull trees and shrubs out of nursery cans to check their root systems. Too few roots mean that the plant hasn’t become established. Look for white to light beige roots that are fleshy. Dark brown or black roots with a dull appearance indicate rot. Also, look for signs that a tree or shrub is pot-bound, and its growth has stopped. There should be soil particles visible between roots in a healthy plant. Reject container plants with roots growing out drainage holes, ones with endlessly coiled roots and those with roots on the soil surface.
Avoid limp or wilted perennials. They are either pot-bound or diseased. There should be enough soil in a container to store moisture to sustain the plant for a day or two. Even when garden centers water daily, a root-bound perennial will wilt.
Wilted and rootbound hydrangea are not a bargain at any price. They are guaranteed failure.
Tall, spindly perennials can be bargains if they look healthy in other respects. After planting, cut back all foliage by half. New shoots and leaves will quickly appear. Don’t fertilize, though. Let the perennial harden off for winter. Keep any blooms picked so that the plant’s energy goes into establishing an extensive root system.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.