Home & Garden

April 24, 2014

Amanda McNulty: Three questions (and two tips) to ask yourself before buying plants for your garden

There are a lot of plant sales in the Midlands this weekend

Amanda McNulty


My friend Ann Nolte’s grandmother ran a restaurant in Tulia, Texas. Each morning she started her day collecting provisions for the day’s menu. As she walked out the door, she slipped on a pair of white gloves and then placed a hat on her head.

Plant sales are abounding and gardeners are setting out to replenish and add to their garden’s larder. Hats are still recommended but leave the white gloves at home.

Here are three questions you should ask yourself and the plant seller, and two tips:

Question 1. What do you have now?

My front bed is unsatisfactory and I’m going to concentrate on sprucing it up. Make an inventory of your garden. If your perennial bed is already beautiful, look further for a place that needs a focal feature or perhaps even a makeover. I recently found a golden anise (Illiciium) that I’m adding to a bed anchored by Mahonia fortunei. Both are shade-loving plants but have different textures, and the unusually colored anise will make you look twice at the expanse of green provided by the mahonias that have been satisfactory as a filler but lacked any wow factor.

Fortunately, both these plants are well-suited to my home’s hardiness zone of 8b. The Illicium is rated for hardiness zones 7a-9b, and Mahonia fortune is the best of that species for the south as it performs well in zones 8 -9. For us in the Midlands, we fall into either zone 8a or 8b.

Look for plants whose area of optimum performance includes those zones. If a plant is recommended for zones 4-8b, I would avoid it – obviously it’s most happy in cooler parts of the country and will probably have the vapors by July and August.

Question 2. Dry or wet soil?

The majority of landscape plant material prefers well-drained soils but there are individuals that require or will succeed in wet areas. Sumter’s Swan Lake Iris Gardens are the result of a mistake made by a gentleman who was so disgusted with the performance of expensive Japanese iris planted next to their German iris cousins that he threw them away on the edge of his fishing pond; a rare case where not knowing the plant’s requirements had a happy ending.

Question 3. How big will the plant be?

Pay close attention to the mature size of the plant, which should be included on the tag or provided by the vendor. Easy to propagate and therefore inexpensive cleyeras (actually Ternstroemia gymnanthera) have been planted under many a window. A look into Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants reveals that the size is from 8 to 20 feet tall, although it will withstand constant pruning if you want to maintain it at 4-6 feet. Cleyera is an attractive large shrub; when it flowers the bees mine it for nectar and pollen so much that it sounds like an air conditioner, but it sure isn’t worth pruning three or four times a year.

The same mistake often happens with crape myrtles. A reputable store recently had one-gallon pots labeled “red” crape myrtle for sale. Red crape myrtles can top out at from five to 30 feet; and many are plagued by insect and disease problems. Improved cultivars avoid those drawbacks.

Popular foundation plants boxwoods and dwarf hollies are the same – that is they aren’t the same at all. Within the genus there are species and even more specialized named varieties or cultivars that allow you to choose a plant that will grow in full sun and max out at six feet or one that prefers some shade and with a mature height of 18 inches can serve as an edging material.

Tip 1. Ask questions

If you get excited about a plant but need more information than the tag or seller can give you, use your phone and search the name of the plant you are considering followed by site:edu. You’ll get extension or university websites and you should select Clemson, Georgia, or North Carolina if they’re listed – find how that plant behaves in our part of the world.

Carefully slip, (after asking permission from the vendor) a plant out of its pot or its plastic cell so you can check out the roots. If roots are growing out the drainage holes or winding like rope around the edge of the container, the plant is pot-bound and should have been moved up to a larger container. Look for healthy white roots and avoid those that are brown – they’ve been overwatered or contracted a disease.

Tip 2. Look for signs of health

And speaking of diseases – plants growing in a nursery should have been tended with the utmost care and arrive on the market in pristine condition. They should be stocky, not tall and attenuated, and have leaves and stems free of blemishes and insects.

Don’t start out with problems or introduce diseases into your yard. Life in the Southern garden is stressful enough – only the strongest and best suited are going to flourish.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org

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