As many of you know, I love to save a few pennies here and there. One of the best ways to save money is to shop nursery and garden centers “End of Season Sales”. Most nurseries and garden centers do not want to hold plant material over the winter, so they begin to discount the price towards the end of September in hopes of moving the plants. Prices can be reduced anywhere from 20 to 50% off of retail. Now even though this sounds like a tremendous bargain, you need to keep a few things in mind. First and foremost, don’t go nuts buying plants without having the idea where they are going to be planted on your property. Remember that Garden Journal we talked about in spring? That is the perfect guide to bring with you when purchasing plants, and hopefully you have been diligent with keeping it up to date.
When you get to the garden center and start to look at the plants, look carefully and inspect the bark and leaves. Are the leaves yellow, wilted, curled or brown? These all can point to several different problems. Yellow, wilted or brown leaves could be caused from inadequate watering (which is a definite possibility, especially with balled and burlapped plants), diseases (wilts or anthracnose such as on dogwoods) or insects (look for blackish-brown dots on the undersides of leaves). When looking at the bark, make sure that it is securely wrapped around the plant and there are no missing areas of bark. Remember the active growing area of the stem is right below the bark of the tree, so if the bark is missing, the active area will dry up and not transport the nutrients the top of the plant needs. Also look for holes in the bark from burrowing insects such as borers. A few yellow leaves should not stop you from getting a good deal, just understand what the cause of the yellowing is and take appropriate action when you get the plant home.
One place where people do not check the plant, even in growing season, is the root zone. Check to see if the root ball is solid and firm if the plant is balled and burlapped. If it is loose, the broken soil may include a broken major root which will hinder the plant from adapting and getting set for the upcoming winter. One other thing to check is how many layers of burlap the ball has wrapped around it. I have purchased plants before at end of year sales that looked fairly good, but when I got it home and went to plant it I pulled the new top piece of burlap off to reveal an older, semi-rotted piece underneath. This tells you that the plant was held over last winter and they put a new piece of burlap over the old to dress it up. If the plant is in a container, don’t be scared to give it turn it upside down and slide the pot off to get a good look at the root system. If the plant has been around for a while, you will notice a lot of roots and little soil (aka the plant is root bound). When planting, just tease the roots to allow them to spread out into the soil and to stop the circular habit.
If the plants pass these tests, remember to add compost to the planting hole, a good soaking right after they are planted, and watering once a week if we hit a dry period. The good news is that Fall is for Planting, and the plant will have the needed time to adapt to the new location through fall, winter and the early part of spring before the hot weather returns next year and stresses the plant. You will see that many plants will do better when planted in fall than spring and you will save a few dollars as well.