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June 25, 2022

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Shop smart in search of ‘starts’

Do research before buying nursery-grown seedlings

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Healthy cell packs of flower starts are sale in 2017.
Healthy cell packs of flower starts are sale in 2017. (Jeff Lowenfels) Photo Gallery

Many gardeners don’t start all their plants from seed. We buy “starts,” or seedlings — nursery-grown plants to transplant into our gardens and containers.

These mostly consist of annuals and vegetables in plastic cell packs of four or six plants each. Many people also buy starts in individual containers.

I pay particular attention when buying my spring starts. You can’t go back and start over in the middle of spring or summer, and you don’t want to be disappointed because you bought plants that didn’t perform.

So, here’s a routine you might want to follow to make sure you get good plants.

It starts with which nursery you go to. Before you buy, look around.

Does it appear the place grows its own plants, or do they buy from wholesalers? Nurseries that grow their own spring starts usually take good care of them. Wholesalers are often responsible for their plants’ care at the outlets they sell to, and so care might not be as good at the retail end.

Make sure the plants have been properly watered. Every time a cell pack dries out, the seedlings are shocked and take time to recover, if they do at all. You don’t want to see flats of wilting plants. If there are lots of half-dead plants being sold for half off, or racks of drying plants sitting in the hot sun outside the store, that’s a tipoff to buy elsewhere.

Next, before you buy a cell pack, feel the soil. (It’s OK, you’re allowed!) In addition to being moist, it should not be compacted, a sign of having dried out. I even make sure it smells fresh.

I also check the drainage holes to get a gauge on the roots, so I know whether I need to transplant the seedlings when I get home or even if they have become too root-bound to buy.

None of this takes much time because I know what a healthy plant looks like, and you do too. It is free from wind and sun damage. These take time to repair, and who wants to waste growing time?

Look for fungal or bacterial blemishes, and the plants must be free from insects and any pesticide smell (a bad sign indeed, on several levels).

When you buy spring plants in cell packs, “healthy” means all plants in the pack. If one in a four-pack is not healthy, the rest are surely not far behind. Besides, you want your money’s worth.

I’ll leave a store if the plants aren’t labeled. I want to know the plants’ variety name, color and height. Labels help me get the same (or different) varieties next year, depending on this year’s results.

There’s always a question about whether to buy plants in flower. Some plants bloom all season long so there is no problem if they’re already in flower. Other plants, however, bloom only once and that’s it. You don’t want to buy a plant that duds out early in the season because it is already mature.

Personally, if there’s a choice between buying plants already in bloom vs. those that are not, I get the ones without flowers. I am the gardener and I am supposed to produce the blooms in my gardens, not let the nursery do so on its benches.

Finally, remember that plants and impulse buying go together like hand and gardening glove. Always have a garden plan in mind when you shop for plants. It’s easy to make a simple drawing and make a list of the plants. I keep mine on my cellphone. That way, it’s always with me when I stop at a nursery.

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