Choosing healthy bedding plants prevents many common problems. But how do you know whether you're getting ones that will do well all season?
Here are some tips. Do not buy plants that have weak or spindly stems; leaves that are yellowing, brown or dead; leggy, overgrown stems; a rootbound root system; lots of flowers and/or fruit already on the plant.
Look for "stocky" plants that are as wide as they are tall, or nearly so. Plants with spindly stems have been grown with excessive nitrogen, too little light or too much water. These plants will never perform as well as stocky ones.
The leaves of a transplant should be a healthy, green color (unless it's meant to be variegated or have other than green leaves as an adult). If the plant has wilted, stunted, yellowing or dead leaves, that indicates it is or has been under stress, perhaps by underwatering, too little light or incorrect fertilization. Do not buy a plant because you feel sorry for it and think you will be able to help it recover. It won't.
Plants that are leggy (too much distance between leaf nodes) likely were started too early. Seedlings that you buy should still be in a vegetative state — that is, putting on good growth, not producing fruit or flowers. Plants in a vegetative growth state experience much less transplant shock when you set them out than those that have already progressed to the production stage.
Older transplants have a tendency to become root-bound, developing a mat of roots in the pot or pony-pack. When a plant is root-bound, root damage is certain to occur when it is moved to the garden, making it slower to establish. Look at the color of the roots of a plant before you buy it. They should be healthy and white, not tan or brown, and not matted in the bottom of the container.
Growing bedding plants on a commercial basis is not easy. It's hard to guess and anticipate what the season ahead will be like, which is what determines when the public will buy your product. Like most industries, nurseries have developed a few ways to help themselves. For example, the size of the cells in seed-growing flats have become smaller, thus helping growers reduce costs, giving them more display space and reducing transportation costs. The downside of this is that plants become root-bound more quickly.
Flowering bedding plants can be treated with certain chemicals to retard growth and prevent spindly plants. I want to emphasize that these chemicals are allowed on ornamental plants only — not vegetables.
All of the points above show why it is better to buy what you can from local growers and not from stores that ship plants long distances from a different climate. Besides, you will be helping to support our local economy.
Coming up: If you'd like to learn how to create your own apple tree by grafting, call 541-776-7371 to sign up for a class by retired Oregon State University Extension agent George Tiger, to be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 13. Preregistration and prepayment of the $35 fee for materials will net you one of the 25 spaces available, plus at least three trees to take home. The class will meet at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at email@example.com.