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Buying Plants

Selecting Annuals

Once you've determined which annuals you'd like to plant, you'll want to find the best quality plants and seeds possible. Fortunately, seeds and boxed bedding plants available in the United States are generally of high quality. The tips outlined below will also help.

Delphinium is an annual of both great beauty and height.
Delphinium is an annual of both
great beauty and height.

Whether you make your purchases through a local greenhouse or nursery, a chain store, or a roadside stand, you'll usually find fresh, high-quality seeds and vigorous, insect- and disease-free plants. What's more, with very rare exceptions, these offerings can be relied upon
to be correctly labeled.

Because of this consistently good quality, it's possible to buy plants wherever you find the best price on the variety you want. However, before buying, be sure that it really is the lowest price. That is, one retailer may sell a "box" for $3.99 and another sell a "box" of the same variety for only $3.50. But if the first box contains eight plants and the second contains six, the higher-priced box is the better buy.

When possible, purchase boxed plants early in the season, especially if the store you buy them from is not a nursery or garden shop. Too often, the plants arrive at the store in vigorous condition but then are tended by personnel who know nothing about plants. As a result, watering is frequently haphazard and inadequate.

Added to the problem is the fact that boxed plants are usually displayed in a hot and brightly sunlit outdoor location where the sun and wind dry them out. Unfortunately, each time the plants wilt down some of their strength is lost. Bedding plants that suffer from these conditions will be slow to recover when they're put in the garden. Here are some things to look for:

  • Leaf color: The foliage of naturally green-leafed plants should be bright green, not faded yellow or scorched bronze or brown.

  • Plant shape: The sturdiest seedlings will be compact, with short stretches of stem between sets of leaves. A lanky, skinny seedling is weaker and less desirable than a short, stocky one.

  • Pests: If you shake the plant, no insects should come fluttering off. Inspect the stem tips and flower buds for aphids, small pear-shape sap suckers. Look for hidden pests by turning the plant upside down and looking under the leaves and along the stem.

  • Roots: An annual with ideal roots will have filled out its potting soil without growing cramped. When roots are overcrowded, the plant is root-bound -- the roots have consumed all soil space and grown tangled. The best way to judge root quality is to pop a plant out of its container (or ask a salesperson to do this) and check to see how matted the roots have become.

If the last frost date isn't yet passed, or your planting bed isn't fully prepared, it still makes sense to buy plants when they first arrive at the retailer's. Bring them home where you can care for them properly until you can plant them out.

When purchasing packets of seeds, there are two things to check on. First, be sure the seeds are fresh. Somewhere on the label it should read "Packed for sale in 20--." Make sure it's the current year.

Second, when deciding between several sources for the same kind of seed, look at the number of seeds each company offers in its packet. As with the boxed plants, the lower-priced packet is not always the best buy.

All of the large seed houses supply reliable, fresh, high-quality seeds. In addition, you'll find there are many small specialty seed companies sending out catalogs. Little is known about these suppliers; they may or may not be reputable. When dealing with a seed company you haven't ordered from before, it's a good idea to buy only two or three packets the first season. How well those seeds perform will determine whether or not you want to order more from that company in the future.

Unlike annuals and most other plants, bare-root plants come "naked" with no soil and just a bit of moist packing. Read about buying and transplanting bare-root material on the next page.

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