The lone voice of horticultural reason

Annual Disasters

Visit any nursery, garden center, roadside stand, home center or food store this time of year, and what do you see? Stacks and racks and flats of blooming annuals, ready for sale. Only one thing wrong with the situation: they shouldn’t be in bloom.

Last Saturday I visited a variety of garden retailers, and saw bench after bench of two-inch tall impatiens started from seed just six weeks ago but already covered with flowers. I saw inch-high ageratum, a lovely little annual for edging, bursting with fuzzy blue blooms. Geraniums, gerbera daisies, salvia, begonias, pansies, alyssum, every flower you could name, were out last weekend in full, colorful force.

Also out in full, colorful force, were good and honest Minnesotans, loading these flowers up by the cartload. Hybrid roses at one chain store were walking out the door as fast as people could buy them, each around two feet tall and blooming like mad. Some rose plants already had flowers that were fading, but were packed with buds ready to open on the way home, at the first good bump in the road.

The problem? None of these plants are in bloom of their own accord. The nursery industry learned long ago that when it comes to selling flowers, if they’re not in bloom, they won’t sell. So they mess with them, severely, and in doing so, severely mess with your garden.

This time of year, the annuals you buy have been force-fed high doses of fertilizer packed with phosphorous and potassium, in order to achieve this remarkably early bloom time that the public unwittingly encourages. You are buying young, abused, whacked out little junkie plants, that would get bug tattoos and have their pistils pierced and hang out in packs annoying the ferns at the malls if they could just figure out how to get out of these accursed pots.

Think about it. A true annual—impatiens, begonias, zinnias—are plants that complete an entire life cycle in one year, or one growing season. They sprout, grow roots, develop stems and leaves, set buds, flower, go to seed, and then, to quote Austin Powers, they are spent. They die, usually a bit prematurely in the north from frost, but are just as doomed after completing their single cycle when grown down in Texas or Arizona.

When you buy annuals in early to mid-May that are in bloom, they are already well along into this cycle. Three-quarters of the way, in fact. These flowers aren’t ready for planting, they’re ready to collect social security. Here it is only May, and they have already lived long, full lives. Take the little two- or three-inch blooming impatiens home from the nursery and plant them, and sure, you’ve got instant color. But you also have a plants that don’t feel like growing much more of a root system—been there, done that.

For the entire rest of the season the plants plod slowly along, with an inadequate root system and this sneaking suspicion that, like a twelve-year-old Olympic champion figure skater, they missed something. What they missed was a normal childhood. These bizarre little misfits are the Michael Jacksons of the plant world.

They won’t grow as tall as they should. The small root system holds them back. Plus they’re already in bloom, so the plant figures it is nearing full height. They are more susceptible to disease, need more frequent watering, never have the chance to adjust properly to your soil and your light conditions. They never thrive.

Oh, they’ll continue to bloom, and they will get taller, although they’ll be lanky and thin. You may even think they look fine, but that’s only because you’ve never seen what they could look like.

Let me point out that I don’t direct any great blame toward the nursery industry. I’ve known nursery owners and growers and plant specialists for years, many of them darn good experts. It’s a business. It’s tough to grow plants more slowly, and sell plants that are going to kick butt one month down the road, when your competition down the block does twice your volume in sales because its plants are blooming in May.

How do I handle it? First, I grow a lot of annuals from seed in my basement. This is not the column to go into that process. If I don’t get to the answer here pretty quick the Web’s going to run out of space. I thank you for even getting this far.
I buy annuals at nurseries, too, but when I do I try to find the flats of annuals that are the least far along. Look for the flowers that have been put out into the retail area that don’t have flowers yet. They are sitting there because the garden center has run out of space in the prep areas, so have slid a few flats and pots into the retail section where they will hit bloom in a week or two. Surprise them, and buy these. Pinch off any little buds you see.

Most of the time, however, you will have no choice but to buy flowers in bloom. Pinch out the top third of the plant(s) while you are in line at the check out. Take all the blooms and a bit of stem right off, just above a leaf. Always whistle Broadway show tunes while you do this, and throw the flowers over your shoulder.

For geraniums and gerbera daisies and other annuals that have already shot up single, tall, blooming spikes from the center base of the plant, wait until you get home, then cut off all the blooms and shorter stems with buds just above where the stem forms, using a bypass pruner. It’s a little difficult to bring yourself to do it the first time. You need not whistle.
The result? Instant salvation. The plant yells, “Hey! I’m not in bloom!” And what does it do? It starts the cycle over. It needs to start drawing water and energy to start the blooming process, so it starts sending out new roots. It actually grows, for a change. But this time, it’s in your soil.

You will only sacrifice about three to four weeks of color, depending on the plant. By mid-June your annuals will have caught up with your neighbor’s. After that, it’s no contest. For the rest of June, then July, August, September, and into October until frost, your annuals will be bigger, sturdier, healthier and much more colorful than in any garden in your area where the forced-bloom plants were used.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener