Recently, I blogged about the advantages of buying seedlings rather than growing from seed. With the veg patch at my new house very much a work in progress, I’ve struggled to find time and space to grow seedlings this year, so I’ve bought more seedlings than I would have done usually.
There have been a number of advantages to this approach. I haven’t needed my greenhouse (handy, like the one I’ve inherited is virtually paneless presently…), it’s been quicker and easier, and I’ve been able to concentrate on turning the garden around. However, there have been disadvantages too. Seedlings are more expensive than seeds and I’ve felt uncomfortable at times with not being in total control of the process, as well as missing the enjoyment and satisfaction of nurturing little plants from scratch.
That said, buying seedlings is an ace way of filling gaps in your growing programme, whether you’re trying to save time and focus on certain crops or pests have taken out sowing. Normally I grow pretty much everything from seed, so this Spring has been another learning curve in the allotment adventure for me. Here are 4 things I’ve learnt to look out for when buying plants.
The biggest drawback of buying seedlings is not knowing their history. Unless you get to chat with the grower (possible if it’s a nice village plant sale or you know the grower, tricky if you’re buying from the web), there isn’t really a way of telling how well the plants have been hardened off, if they have at all, so it is worth doing a spot of hardening off yourself before planting out. It pays to be sure and allows the plant to get used to their new environment before they get down to the business of growing on.
I’ve found that the best way to harden off plants is to let them adjust over a 2 week period. For the first week, bring the plants out first thing in the morning, and then place them back into the greenhouse for the night time. For the second week, leave the plants outside permanently but cover with fleece if the temperature looks like it will be getting cold. Once into the third week, ditch the fleece and get ready to plant out onto your plot.
For some of the hardier plants, such as peas, broad beans, and leeks you’ll likely get away with just a week, but it is best to gradually harden off more tender plants like tomatoes, courgettes, squashes, and runner beans.
Try and find out the variety if you can, as this will help you determine important things like when you can expect a harvest or if the plant is resistant to certain diseases. Again, this can sometimes be tricky if buying seedlings from shops or plant sales as the information isn’t always on the labels, but you’ve got more chance at a plant sale as you’re likely to be dealing with the person that grew the plant.
Most varieties behave in a similar way, so don’t fret if you can’t get this information, but it is handy to have and will also help you decide whether to grow the same variety again in the future.
Plants boasting the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) symbol will have been tested for pest and disease resistance, and are a safe choice.
Apply Some Restraint!
Wandering into a good nursery or plant sale can be a particularly intoxicating experience. With beautiful plants at every turn, the temptation is great and before you know it, your basket is full and you’re wobbling to the tills desperately trying not to drop everything.
Of course, buying plants is great, but not a year goes past where I don’t end up standing over my patch with a tray of bonus plants trying to work out where on earth I am going to squeeze them in. Unless you’ve got a big space, save your pennies and don’t overbuy.
Have a good look around before you buy, as the quality of the plant is important if they’re going to hit the ground running. Some signs of health are obvious, such as colour, but look out for root-bound plants and those showing signs of pest damage. There shouldn’t be a mass of tangled roots at the bottom – this is a surefire sign that the plant has been in the pot too long. Check for holes in the leaves or slug tracks over the soil or plant itself, and don’t forget to look under the leaves too. Yellow leaves can mean the plant is low on nutrients or hasn’t been watered consistently, whilst mildew on the leaves might indicate overwatering or potentially reduced harvests.
Don’t automatically buy the tallest plants – leggy plants will be weak at the stem. Sometimes small is best as the root structure will be more consistent with the size of the plant. Little plants with strong roots will grow much better.