The Savvy Plant Shopper: August Edition

Story and photos provided by Cheryl Boyer

August is not a time most folks are traditionally thinking about planting things. It’s hot, sticky and most of the time downright gross outside. Maybe that’s a personal opinion. Ah hem. In any case, it’s not like May when garden centers are flush with fresh, new product after the doldrums of winter. Instead, there might be great deals to be had on plants that have somehow not been carried home by someone. For the savvy garden consumer, there are excellent opportunities to fill the ornamental planting beds in their world.

Tips for navigating the leftovers:

Let’s be clear: not all plants are leftovers. Most garden centers routinely have fresh, new crop delivered. Plants vary by the season and there are annuals, perennials, and woody plants that shine in each quarter of the year. For example, I cannot wait for mums to arrive, signaling Fall. Those are not leftover crops—they’ve been in production for months awaiting just this time of year to be introduced on store shelves. Trees and shrubs are also excellent choices for Fall planting time.

What you might see on clearance shelves are end-of-season annuals (maybe a bit overgrown, but you can get a little more life out of them, especially if you jam a bunch into a container to make it look “finished”) and perennials that have been held a little too long. These can be great deals if you know what you’re looking for. Obviously, if the plant has a disease or insect issue, it should be discarded by the manager (if it hasn’t, you might point it out). Some plants may just have a bit of nutrient deficiency. Their whole world of resources is in that container so if they run out of fertilizer and the garden center employees haven’t top-dressed or applied liquid fertilizer (both are added expenses at the retail level—you hope they’ve found a home before it gets to that point), you may see some yellowing of the foliage. This is still a viable plant—get it in the ground so it can go hunting for nutrient resources and it’ll be fine.

The next thing to look for is root health. Some plants can get “pot-bound” where it’s difficult to take the container off of the plant because there are so many roots. This is not a big problem for annuals and perennials. Just loosen the roots with your fingers, pruners or a knife before planting. If you see a “pot-bound” shrub you may need to do some serious cutting of the root system (I promise it’ll be fine!). Trees with compromised roots are a bigger issue. To start with, the plant needs to be a recommended one for your area. A poor choice in tree variety with an even poorer root system is just asking for disaster. Unless you have a “Back 40” with plenty of room to rescue plants. In that case, go ahead and plant it—just not anywhere near the house.

Don’t be afraid to take a good look at those roots. You’re buying the whole thing, after all! They should be white with fine hairs coming off of them. There are a very few plants with colored roots, but you should be able to distinguish “healthy” from “decomposing” relatively easily. Roots should be evenly distributed throughout the root-ball, but you’ll often find them clustered near the bottom of a container on larger plants. That’s because resources tend to be most available in that region. And also why you need to take the container off to determine root health. Go ahead, take it off, but be careful and respectful.

Plants that are slightly wilted will often recover with some water. Severe wilting is a gamble for recovery. Others that may have a few weeds or suckers coming off of the base of the plants can be cleaned out and pruned. If you can’t see the plant for the weeds, that’s a problem. A rare one in the retail setting, but I’m sure it exists somewhere.

You shouldn’t be deterred from buying plants that have been hanging out at the store all summer. Give them a good look and if you’ve got a spot for them in your landscape, load ‘em up. The more the merrier! Some of the more bedraggled plants might take slightly longer to fill out and thrive, but soon enough you’d never guess they came from the clear-out rack.

While there’s no guarantee of plant survivability in any given year, clearance plants are worth a shot. Chances are strong that a decent percentage will make it through the winter if you plant them well, mulch, and remember to occasionally give them some water if it doesn’t rain or snow.

Be sure to share your great “finds” with fellow gardeners. I think I might just go back and get a few clearance plants myself.

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