Make the most of your choices at garden centres

The first of May marks the opening of seasonal greenhouses and garden centres. For the year-round operations, it is the start of the busy spring selling season.

The first of May marks the opening of seasonal greenhouses and garden centres. For the year-round operations, it is the start of the busy spring selling season.

Businesses that sell bedding-out-plants can be divided into three groups. They grow their own, bring everything in from other growers or they are a hybrid of the two.

Establishments that grow all their own plants are often small to mid-sized and manned by a few knowledgeable people. The variety of plants sold depends on if they purchased cuttings or seed. Plants started by cuttings will be similar to what others sell. Places that start some or all of their plants from seed are more likely to carry some unique varieties that are not mainstream. Shop early or they will be gone.

Temporary garden centres bring all their plants in. The plants are bought in bulk by the head office and shipped out according to the contract. The person who runs the greenhouse for the season may have training or may be the person who is in charge of all the seasonal items — back to school, Thanksgiving, etc. Plants arrive straight from a heated greenhouse and are placed in the facilities available, which may or may not be heated. In the case of a heavy frost or late snow storm, the plants are covered as best they can or moved indoors if there is room.

Most of these establishments do their best to water the plants, but that can be a problem if the area is cramped and full of customers. Do not purchase plants, regardless of the price, if they look like they need to be watered.

As local people do not order the plants, often trees and shrubs that arrive are for a warmer climate. They will do well during the summer months but will rarely survive the winters. A replacement guarantee until the end of the season is of little help when the plants winterkill. A year guarantee is useful if they will replace it with a hardier variety, but time and a year’s growth has been lost. Boxwood is not hardy in Alberta.

When in doubt, google the plant before making the purchase.

Large greenhouses grow the majority of their material but room is limited, which means they too will bring in annuals from local wholesalers.

Some of the perennials will be grown on site, with others brought in from warmer climates. The buyers are trained and all material that is brought in should be hardy.

But it pays to read the labels.

Trees and shrub will be a mixture of locally grown and imported. Early in the season, it is easy to distinguish between the two as the ones brought in are more advanced than local material. Always read the labels to see what growing conditions plants need, as well as the suggested zones.

Large establishments need to have a large number of staff to keep everything watered, restocked and help customers. Not all of them will have knowledge about the plants but they will direct you to a person who does.

Before purchasing a tree or shrub, ask about the guarantee.

When purchasing annuals from any establishment, look at the size of plant, size of roots and price. To purchase a healthy plant that will start growing once it is set out, look for plants that have top growth that matches the root growth. This means that if each plant is in a large container, the plant can be large and even flowering. If the container is small, the plant also needs to be small.

Plants that have grown too large for their pot will be root bound, which means the roots will be growing in circles within the pot.

When transplanted, the roots will need to be torn apart or the roots will continue to grow in that one spot.

They will not venture out in surrounding soil and will die if they do not receive a daily supply of moisture and fertilizer. The plants will not flourish. If the plants are root bound, they may be inexpensive but they are not a good deal.

Spring is a very busy time for all greenhouses. To avoid the crowds, choose to shop at less popular times: early in the morning, during the supper hour, on a rainy day or late at night.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist who lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at your_garden@hotmail.com.

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