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Perennials on Sale

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 20 July 2001

Garden centers have started putting perennials on sale. You can get some good deals — but be careful to get plants that are healthy, and give them extra care if you plant them in hot weather.

Plants grown for sale get potbound quickly because they are fed richly to get them to look good early. I’ve never had a retailer object when I upend the pot and tap the plant out to look at the roots — and if they did, I wouldn’t buy from them. What you want to find is firm, pale roots (not rotten), just starting to creep along the bottom edge of the pot, or the sides; that means they have filled the interior of the pot and are looking to expand.

If roots are massed along the bottom or sides, tease them gently apart and spread in a large hole when you plant. If the whole pot is jammed with roots, the root ball needs surgery: with a sharp knife make two vertical cuts, crossing at right angles in the center of the mass, from the bottom up about a third of its height. Spread the root mass gently outward from the cut. Mix some compost and fertilizer, grab a handful of the mix, and push it into the center of the area you have opened up, then quickly turn the plant right side up and plant it in the hole you have prepared. (You want to keep that handful from falling out.)

Before you buy a perennial that needs root surgery, give a hard look at the top structure. If it’s not in extremely good condition, don’t get it. Look for crisp, strongly-colored leaves: no spotted or limp, floppy ones, or a washed-out color. Sturdy stems, with the leaves placed close together on them: no leggy, spindly, weak ones stretching to find sun in a crowd. Are there dead leaves all over the bottom of the plant? It’s in shock from either too much or too little water. Too much can rot the roots, a condition difficult for a plant to recover from.

When you plant your sale perennials, give them plenty of liquid seaweed, and rig some shelter over them from the sun, for two days (unless you’re lucky and it rains). Cut back a quarter to half of the stems, especially removing flowers: you want the plant making roots. Then water them carefully until frost: don’t let them get drier than they like, or wetter. Next year you will be proud of their response.

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© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark