As you begin planning this season’s garden, you’ll find lots of advice on how to grow like a pro. But what about buying plants like a pro? With so many places now selling herb plants — from grocery stores and neighborhood plant sales to farmer’s markets and specialty mail-order nurseries — you can easily end up paying a lot for less than the best. Even healthy plants can be worthless if mislabeled (it does happen) or if they are ill suited to your garden site.
Before you begin budgeting for plants this spring, remember that how a plant performs in your garden depends on the quality of the plant or seed, as well as your gardening skills. Buying plants can be a blunder unless you equip yourself with a few plant particulars and shopping strategies.
Make a List, Check it Twice
Before heading out to your local nursery or garden center, create a checklist of questions: Are the plants grown locally, and if not, have they been acclimated to the outdoors? Does the nursery offer quantity discounts? Ask about their guarantee policy as well, which can vary from no guarantee to full replacement or refund for any plant that fails within the first six months. Your garden site’s special circumstances include light conditions (sunny or shady), soil quality and pH (sandy or clay, acid or alkaline), plant hardiness zone (how cold your area gets in winter) and the amount of space you have for plants.
Use the staff as a resource for questions, just don’t rely on everything they say. Reputable garden centers employ trained horticulturists or garden experts, but many also hire seasonal help with minimal garden knowledge or training. Some questions also can be answered by reading detailed plant labels in the pot — including the plant’s name (both botanical and common), sun and moisture requirements, growing tips and hardiness zone — though the information may be too general in nature or the plant may be mislabeled. I found anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) labeled as hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) at one nursery. You’ll have better success if you bring a good pictorial plant reference guide with you when shopping for plants.
Signs and Signals
Buying your plant at a discount store doesn’t make it a bargain. Nor does buying a plant at a specialty nursery guarantee success unless you know what to look for.
First, weed out the weaklings. Wilted leaves or foliage that looks yellow, browned or curled are often signs of careless or inadequate watering, or of possible pest or disease problems. (Thoroughly check leaves for aphids, pests or other insects.) Plants that have outgrown their pots may be root-bound and will take longer to establish once in the ground. Obvious signs of a root-bound plant include bulging pots or a profusion of roots growing out of the bottom drainage holes. Plants with lanky growth are a result of inadequate light or high-nitrogen fertilizers. These weaklings are more apt to suffer from stress and are more susceptible to diseases and insects.
Look for compact plants with lots of healthy new growth and a consistently true color, whether deep green, rich green, yellow green, blue green or purple. (Keep in mind that normally green foliage that looks purple may be a symptom of cold damage.) The plant size should be in proportion to its container, with roots barely visible from the bottom of the pot. And always opt for smaller plants with buds rather than larger plants bearing a profusion of flowers. In addition, check each plant to be sure it has the scent you want; most good garden centers don’t mind if you rub a leaf to smell it.
Many perennial herbs can be grown from seed, but be aware that some seed has a limited life. Depending on the type of plant and how the seed is stored, that life can range anywhere from six months to 10 years (some seeds have been found to remain viable for 100 years). Germination rates decrease over time, and a seed’s life can be further reduced depending on how the seed stock was grown (seed saved from poor-quality stock generally won’t live as long) and under what conditions it was stored. In addition, the date stamped on seed packets only indicates the year in which the seed was packaged for sale. The seed packet you buy this year may contain seed that is several years old.
Some perennial herbs may be slow and erratic to germinate, or can take two to three years to reach blooming size. Selection can be limited as many named varieties don’t come true from seed, and, as a result, are produced from stem cuttings. For example, plants grown from seeds of Rosmarinus officinalis will be variable, whereas named varieties such as ‘Salem’ or ‘Tuscan Blue’ are available only as cuttings of propagated plants. A $2 seed packet containing hundreds of seeds is no bargain if the seed is difficult to sprout or you only need a few plants.
That said, many herbs are worthwhile candidates for growing from seed, especially annual herbs such as basil (Ocimum spp.) or German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). To ensure you’re getting quality seed, buy from a reputable seed company that runs germination tests on a regular basis. Frequency can vary — from four to 18 months — so it’s a good idea to ask. Many seed catalogs list how often germination tests are run and under what conditions seed is stored.
Growing plants from seed also can be quite rewarding — to your spirit and your pocketbook. Especially if you have a large garden, or pride yourself on having plants to give away to friends, sowing seed is the way to go. As you spend time coddling the small seedlings in their respective containers and a starting medium (such as vermiculite) under grow lights, you’ll enjoy getting to know your plants from the very beginning. Not only will you witness their development, but you’ll end up with better plants than you may find at most nurseries because they haven’t suffered any wilting or transportation stress. The whole process can be just plain fun and satisfying. If you have young children around, get them involved in the process as well. Some good starter herbs include chives, echinacea, calendula, catnip, chervil, parsley and marjoram.
Whether buying plants or starting them from seed, you can help your plants settle in and flourish. Plants that have not been properly hardened off to outdoor conditions need several days to acclimate to their new environment so they won’t go into shock once planted. Bring them outside during the day in a holding area protected from direct wind and full sun — such as a shady porch — then bring them indoors at night. Leave them outside for increasingly longer periods, gradually moving them into the sun if that is where they are to grow. Tender plants purchased early in the season must be kept in a protected spot until it’s safe to plant outside. (Check with your county extension office for your local estimated last-freeze date.)
You may want to wait to buy plants until after your beds have been prepared and are ready for planting. This will keep healthy plants from taking a turn for the worse by spending extra weeks in their containers if bed preparation is delayed. On the other hand, the longer you wait, the less selection you’ll find at the nursery. Be conscious of both factors as you balance your springtime garden chores.
Plants will have an easier time adjusting if transplanted when it’s cooler, such as on an overcast day. If no clouds are in sight, plant late in the afternoon rather than in the morning. Loosening the root ball at planting time also will make it easier for plants to spread out new roots into the soil. By making things easier for your plants, you’ll also make gardening easier and more enjoyable for you.
Kris Wetherbee, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, lives in the hills of western Oregon with her husband, photographer Rick Wetherbee.