Shopping for seedlings

Contributed photoWhen shopping for seedlings, look for rich green color in the foliage. Pale or yellowing foliage is an obvious sign of distress that a plant might not be able to recover from, even with good subsequent care.

Summer is coming fast, but spring isn’t quite over. That means there’s still time to fill the vacant space in your vegetable or flower gardens, or even start a new bed, if you are willing to cut a corner and start with seedlings rather than seeds.

Starting with purchased seedlings is considerably more expensive than starting your own plants from seeds, but if you shop wisely, you’ll more than get your money’s worth.

Years ago, I interviewed a fellow who operated a garden design and maintenance company in Westchester County, about garden shopping. He relied largely on purchased plants and got consistently excellent results, and he had several useful bits of advice.

To begin with, he emphasized the importance of patronizing tested and trusted suppliers. That is, he kept track of where he obtained all his plants, and if they performed well, he made a point of going back to the same grower or retailer the following year. This cost him a bit more money — the best sources were rarely the cheapest — but he felt the extra expense was repaid by the superior results. He told me that he would even combine different customers’ orders and drive as far as Rhode Island to purchase from a grower he particularly liked. Such an expedition would be excessive for the kind of small order you or I might make, but it does underline the importance of starting with quality, well-grown plants.

How do you distinguish healthy plants from their less vigorous relatives? The first thing my shopping mentor told me to look for is a rich green color in the foliage. Pale or yellowing foliage is an obvious sign of distress. It may result from undernourishment or from overwatering, but in either case, you don’t want to start your garden with seedlings that are unhealthy; even if you give them good care, it’s unlikely they will ever recover their vigor.

Purplish foliage can also indicate a problem, unless, of course, it is a regular feature of the type of plant. Otherwise, purplish foliage probably indicates a phosphorus deficiency and that the seedling has endured less than optimal growing conditions.

“Don’t be seduced by oversized seedlings,” was another tip from that helpful garden designer. Ideally, the seedlings should be proportionate to the size of pack or container in which they are grown. Those seedlings that tower above their containers have most likely outgrown them and should have been transplanted into the garden some time ago. If you slip one of these giraffes out of its container, you’ll probably find the roots wrapped densely around the ball of potting soil or growing medium. Look instead for compact and stocky seedlings with crisp, white roots still finding their way downward through and around the growing medium. They are at just the right stage for transplanting. Their outsized, potbound neighbors are likely to prove permanently stunted by having been held in the container too long.

Inexperienced gardeners, my friend warned, commonly gravitate toward seedlings that are already in flower. Perhaps they think the existence of blooms promises that those plants will get down to business more quickly once in the garden. In fact, this is a mistake, for premature flowering is another sign that the seedling is pot bound and probably stunted. What you want are seedlings that are still in the early stage that focuses on vegetative growth, the production of new stems and leaves. A flower bud or two is okay, but pinch these off when you transplant the seedling into your garden. That encourages the youngster to concentrate on growing up before it starts to flower or fruit.

My friend’s final tip was to watch out for hitchhikers. Look for discolored spots on the foliage, which are symptoms of insect damage. Be sure, too, to check the undersides of leaves, the leaf stems, and along the stems for insects or insect eggs. If you find any sign of infestation, reject that seedling, and shop somewhere else. Otherwise, you might bring home a pest that infests your whole garden. That’s a mistake that can haunt you throughout the rest of the summer, a legacy of careless shopping that you’d probably rather avoid.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). Be-a-Better Gardener is syndicated in 19 print and online publications, reaching 250,000 readers.

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