A GROWING CONCERN: Beware the temptation of premature planting

IT HAPPENS EVERY year and I just cannot express how much I hate it.

This last week while shopping, not only did I see tomatoes outside for sale, but then walking into a large warehouse there were impatiens and begonias for sale to the public.

There was absolutely no warning or disclaimer concerning these items and declaring it is a month away from being “safe” to plant them outside.

Nothing, nothing in the gardening world riles me up more than this (and yes, that includes slugs, horsetail and even tent caterpillars).

But this is because you have been set up.

It is human nature to want to take advantage of the first warm and sunny days of spring to grow pretty things.

With me pushing you every week to buy and plan, how can you resist those pretty red geraniums or bright yellow marigolds?

You better find a way.

With the exception of geraniums, selling those plants — especially blooming marigolds — should be an act of gardening treason, because the plants don’t last.

Here’s the scenario:

After a long winter, people are enticed by thoughts of summer gardens.

Then retailers put these lush, soft, forced blooming annuals right in front, where you have to look at them and see the very low price tags.

The treachery continues when these sensitive plants are mingled with items such as primula, winter pansies or bulb combo pots — all appropriate now for the Peninsula’s time and weather.

This makes the buyer think that now is the time to buy these plants, because they wouldn’t be on display otherwise, right? Wrong.

This act borders on criminal because the public believes if an outlet sells plants, then it is marketing proper items at the proper time.

This is called an implied warranty — an item sold to the public has an automatic warranty that it is what it is, and will perform as its supposed to.

Season not ready

But if you were to plant now a marigold, geranium, salvia, impatien, coleus or zinnia, it would not perform as implied because the season is not ready for the plant.

We buy these annual plants over perennials, roses or bushes for the profusion of flowers over the summer and fall season.

The flower count is directly linked to their annual reproduction cycle, which means they die each fall as temperatures fall below 50 degrees.

Question: What is the only time of year we get 24-hour temperatures consistently above 50 degrees?

Answer: The end of May to the beginning of June.

Subjecting one of these annuals to temperatures below even 54 degrees causes the plant to “harden off.”

Recovery unlikely

The plant will become woody and turn bronze, purple or reddish in its foliage. It also will become stunted and produce no new flower buds.

Because of our cool summer nights on the Peninsula, they might never recover.

This is made worse because mass marketers and plant producers use greenhouses to force these plants into early bloom. They use high night temperatures (72 to 78 degrees) and lots of injected fertilizer in the watering system.

These producers even use night lights sometimes to push plants to bloom early and fast.

This is great for the greenhouse, because the crop is grown and sold and a new crop of zinnias can be finished ready in bedding packs for properly timed May sales.

Now you know. Be careful consumers.

Practical advice

Now is the time for some practical advice.

First, know what plants are right and when. Items such as petunias, pansies, primula, snapdragons, various perennials in small pots, dianthus, allyssum and dusty miller could all be fine now.

Inspect them, lift them up and shake slightly,. Well conditioned plants should be dark green, thick, stocky and very compact and dense.

Be careful though, petunias or pansies might be junk if they were forced for sale.

You can tell a forced plant because it is spindly with light or yellow leaves. The plant will have weak growth and elongated spacing between the nodes (branches and leaves).

When to buy early

Avoid the plants, because even pansies will brown out if not conditioned this time of year.

When is it OK to buy early? When you want a plant to “grow on.”

Geraniums are great for this. (Just don’t plant them in the garden, yet.)

To “grow on” is a one-shot way to force a size increase.

This process takes a plant with an already established size, 3½ inches to 4½ inches, and forces it’s growth to a bigger size.

This way a $2 or $3 plant becomes a $10 or $15 specimen.

The “grow on” process occurs inside, which makes it different from forced plants you see at the store.

If you “force a plant” do it for a specific purpose — such as a Memorial Day flower box or a cemetery urn — and don’t put it in the ground until soil temperatures are about 52 degrees.

When bumping up a plant to a larger pot in order to “grow on” make sure to cut away all flowers and flower buds. They only take up much desired energy for growth.

Also cut away all large old leaves and pinch away the growth tips. This is what greenhouses do, with outstanding results.

Always use extremely good potting soil and fertilizer.

Now go out and buy wisely and timely.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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