Round Robin: April Plant Deliveries

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

| April/May 1994

April Deliveries

LANSING, NEW YORK—April on the shores of Lake Cayuga is an unpredictable, sometimes even treacherous month. Either it’s blowing and snowing or the primroses are melting as they emerge into bright sun that has sent temperatures into the eighties. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when the sight of the UPS truck turning into the driveway invariably means boxes of new plants for me—more fun than Christmas!

I always ask to have plants delivered in early April so that I can pot them up and give them a chance to recuperate from their trip and pull themselves together before being subjected to the rigors of life in the garden. Hardening off is a gradual process. On a mild day, I set the plants out on a shady porch next to the house, taking them in at night. Over the next eight to ten days, I get them used to the sun and wind, and then if they look sturdy enough, I set them into the garden.

Does this procedure of mine seem exaggeratedly maternal? Perhaps it would have been so ten or fifteen years ago, but times have changed and so has the plant business. When I ran my own little nursery here some years ago, I ordered some of my plants from other growers. During the first years, I received splendid plants dug from the fields in spring. True, if the digging conditions in Michigan, Ohio, or wherever weren’t right, my orders would be delivered late, but I could live with that. Then the growers switched to digging many of their plants in the fall and keeping them in cold storage for shipment in spring. Plants began to arrive on time, but they often looked like candidates for the intensive care unit.

Not all mail-order plants have been held in cold storage, of course. Some of them come from greenhouses, often in the plastic pots they were grown in. These are usually in much better shape than those that come bare root from storage. But I repot and slowly harden off even these potted plants because they have led a sheltered life and need time to adjust. This is especially true of those that come in tiny six-packs, their roots all coiled round and round. I untangle them carefully and tuck the plants into larger pots, giving them room to stretch out into real soil and compost. If they are very small and slow to take hold, I move them into holding beds for the first summer and into the border only the following year. In the holding beds, they have more room to grow strong and tough—qualities necessary for survival in my border, where competition is fierce and no holds are barred. I do my best to referee, but I don’t always manage to protect the weaklings.

But back to mail-order plants. The packing method is crucial to the way they arrive, but not all nurseries seem to realize this. One expensive northwestern vendor of alpines sends his precious little gems bare root, swathed in what appears to be wet facial tissue, then in cellophane wrap. The result is that one receives wads of pale mush that one can only assume used to be plants. I won’t even allow myself to look at his enticing catalog anymore for fear of succumbing yet again to temptation, only to be disappointed.

Many growers wrap paper firmly around the root ball and secure it with an elastic band, then jam all the plants into a box shoulder to shoulder, heads up, and cover them with those horrid styrofoam peanuts. The styrofoam protects the plants, but it’s the devil to deal with when you remove the plants from the carton.

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