Bargain Garden

time to plant: 3 Northwest garden experts tell you why snapping up discounts at fall nursery sales is a really good idea

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Oooh, there’s a sale table of perennials. And look at that rose, half-price. And oh my gosh, there’s that Japanese maple I’ve been wanting reduced by 40 percent!

Is this you? Then like many gardeners around here, you’ve been noticing that fall is when Northwest nurseries offer big-time plant discounts. You’ve probably also noticed, however, that we’ve lost our summer warmth and frosts aren’t too far away. Is it worth snapping up those garden bargains?

The answer is a resounding yes. Sales time for plants just happens to coincide with the very best time of year to put them in the ground. Curious? Then read on. We rounded up three garden experts — Sue Goetz, landscape designer and owner of Tacoma’s The Urban Garden store, horticulturalist and Olympian garden columnist Marianne Binetti and Scott Gruber, landscaper and owner of Calendula Nursery — to explain just why fall is a perfect time to buy plants and how to take care of those bargains you bring home.

Can you really plant in fall?

Sue Goetz: It’s an obvious question but it gets asked a lot. The answer is definitely yes. The weather is cooler, and plants are going into their dormancy period so they’re not stressed into growing so rapidly. And we’re getting back into our natural rainfall, so they’ll settle in well without needing watering.

Marianne Binetti: That’s a great question! The answer is yes: The soil is warm, but the air is growing cooler, so plants get more rapid root growth than in spring when the soil is still cold. And the rains are coming, so you won’t have to water as much.

Scott Gruber: I say this every single weekend at the Proctor market: Any time of year in the South Puget Sound area is a good time to plant if you can water it. If you can’t, or don’t want to do too much work, then planting in fall is the best time. The plants have time to get established before they go dormant, and then in spring they’re a whole season ahead of the game with very little effort from you.

What’s on sale now in nurseries?

Goetz: Most nurseries are generally blowing out their stock so as not to have to hold it all over winter. I tell people this is the best time to do all the buying you’ve wanted to do. It’s about putting good bones into the garden with trees and shrubs. If it’s on sale you can now afford to buy a bigger tree that’ll make a real statement.

Binetti: Trees and shrubs. You can get great deals on hydrangeas, and they’re in flower so you can see what the blooms are like. Same with Japanese maples, you get to see their color. And you get the deepest discounts on potted roses – they look terrible, but they’ll transplant well.

Gruber: I don’t have anything on sale, but bigger nurseries have clearances. It’s usually the summer flowering perennials, and they’re a good deal – next year they’ll be twice as big.

What are the best things to buy?

Goetz: Other than trees and shrubs, some hardy perennials that do a good job year after year, like echinaceas and rudbeckias. People sometimes shy away from them this time of year because they aren’t blooming, but if they’ve already been through one season they’ll do well next year.

Binetti: You need to ask yourself the three S’s: Sun, Shade and Soil. You need to match the plant to the site, rather than wander around with a plant saying, ‘Where should I put this?’ For instance, do you have morning or afternoon sun? Or shade? Is the soil wet or dry, like on a slope?

Gruber: Trees and shrubs. I sell edible shrubs (like berries and fruit trees) and getting them in the ground late September is ideal, because they will have a couple of months to grow, and you’ll get fruit the next year, which you won’t if you plant in spring.

Is it worth buying up all those sad-looking perennials at big box stores?

Goetz: Be picky. There are some that just weren’t deadheaded and they might have a great root system. See if you can loosen the plant out of the pot a little and see if it’s root-bound. If you can’t dig your fingernails into the root ball it might be a bit of a challenge. I tell people the top can be pretty ugly but if the root is strong it can hit its mark next year.

Binetti: Definitely. Even if a plant looks sad, you have to check the roots. The only ones to avoid are diseased plants (when the leaves are black and slimy), or rotten roots (if you can’t see any roots bursting out of the drainage holes). A plant that looks ugly because it’s past its prime is just in a dormancy phase. For example, daylilies: They’re on the deep discount table in nurseries right now. They’ve finished blooming, their leaves are yellow, but that’s their normal lifecycle and they’ll transplant and do well next year.

Gruber: Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a gamble. Big box stores don’t do a good job of looking after their plants.

Any tips on how to look after those sale plants?

Goetz: Don’t let them sit in the pot all winter – plant them. Get them in the ground. Make sure you give them good soil, tease out the root ball, take extra care of the root system.

Binetti: It’s been sitting in a pot all summer, so you need to submerge it overnight in a bucket of water to completely soak the root ball. Otherwise the water will just run right through it. Then plant it as soon as possible. Don’t plant on a hot, sunny day; wait for evening or a cool, cloudy, rainy day. Then put mulch down to keep in the soil’s warmth and help the roots grow, and to save water. Don’t prune, except for dead, diseased or damaged parts: Pruning stimulates growth, and winter is coming, you don’t want the new growth frozen.

Gruber: They’ll be dry and stressed out from summer, so don’t fertilize them. It’s like when we’re sick with a cold, we don’t eat rich foods. Instead, plant them into compost, which is gentle and nutritive, like wrapping a sick person in a warm blanket. Keep them hydrated but not saturated.

What isn’t a real bargain, no matter how cheap it is?

Goetz: Well, with plant people there’s no plant we don’t want to buy – everyone wants to save that poor little plant! But ones to stay away from are the ones that are a little bit iffy – you don’t want them to die over the winter, even if they were 40 per cent discounted. And if it’s not hardy in winter, it’s not going to get any better. Like lemon trees – all those exotics always seem to be on sale. But you’ve got to have a home for them, like inside a greenhouse.

Binetti: English ivy – it causes too much trouble. Always be cautious if your neighbors offer you free plants, in case they’re invasive species – especially in a small yard.

Gruber: Read the plant tags: annuals are a complete waste of money, for instance – they aren’t going to last. Some trees can be dicey, too, especially from (a big box hardware store). The problem is when it’s a large root ball in burlap, it’s been cut out of the ground so its roots are traumatized, sensitive and dried out. Sometimes there’s no recovery from that. If it looks weak and failing, with yellowing leaves and dry branches, it’s past recovery.

Any other gardening tips?

Binetti: I would look in your yard and see if you have anywhere you can turn into an autumn-themed corner. You can group a gorgeous Japanese maple, a bright red burning bush and a ground cover with red berries, like kinnickinnick or cotoneaster. Then every year you can sit in a comfy chair and look out at your fiery fall corner. It’s a great reminder to celebrate our ‘second spring’.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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