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  • Writer's pictureTom Cavan


When I first began horticultural commerce (1979) I was like a kid in a candy store fingering through nursery and seed catalouges salivating over the extraordinary quantities and selections available in our marketplace. Over 40 years and so much has changed and yet here I am still trekking around selecting material.

When I 1st started was constantly reminded of the limitations of gardening in zone 5 on top of the edge of the escarpment by local gardeners and existing documentation to date. However, over time I came to understand the existing status quo was dubious at best. I came to the realization of living on the top edge of the escarpment was not static or predictable. IN fact, over time I came to understand that any given winter that designation of Zone 5B pending NW exposures and protection from those prevailing winds I had witnessed conditions ranging from Zone2 (like Thunder Bay) to Zone 6 (Mississauga) Zone classification is quantified by 40-day averages within the seasons (old school and more like a barometer) So offering plant guarantees in Southern Ontario is no more than advertising (guilty as charged) ploy to give clients confidence because in reality any given year Mother Nature and Old Man Winter will quarrel beyond our control. As professionals, we chose carefully as it falls on our shoulders to protect your investment. When we receive plant material from growers we have to make the call when it comes off the truck and within five days of receiving, whereas the general public is expecting near lifetime guarantees on the plants they purchase and or the ones we plant for them. It is a strange development in our industry to be expected to be responsible for a living thing after it is out of our hands? We certainly do not get that kind of warranty when we take our newborns home from the hospital. So choose wisely.

The evolution of nurseries in my lifetime has seen plants being grown in the field, spring dug, placed in burlap wrap, or bio-degradable fiber pots with limited seasonal availability to container-grown, soilless media, controlled water, and nutrient with market availability well beyond our seasonal limitations. I call it the container age with inventories for review at the click of a button.

Growers take great care in growing plant material, but then a seasonal hired hand picks it up as quick as possible, puts it on a cart or farm trailer, then the next hired hand packs it onto a skid or rack, then a forklift rushes it onto a truck, the truck hustles down the highway bouncing for hours until it lands in a retail parking lot, the another seasonal hired hand unloads it onto a hot asphalt parking lot, then another forklift picks it up and moves it to a holding area (sometimes in the blazing sun) then the plants get unpacked and then staged on display and hopefully, finally get watered. Any wonder why one plant survives and the other doesn't? Having said that the plant kingdom is truly resilient and for the most part can withstand incredible forces of nature...ONCE ESTABLISHED!!

So from start to finish here are some simple rules to follow when selecting, handling, and planting:

Start at a reputable Nursery or Garden Centre where knowledgeable staff can assist.

When purchasing a plant keep in mind where you intend on planting.

Buy a plant that is suited for that location (not because it is on sale)

Be sure that the container and soil are intact and moist and the holding area is suited to that of the plant's requirements (not wrapped and stuffed like a sardine)

Select the plant with strong outward spreading stems (no scars/torn bark), leaves with rich colour, and no discoloration or brown edges. Do not choose a plant because of its silhouette, over-sheared plants tend to be congested weak inside and get torn to shreds during the 1st winter storm. The strongest plants have horizontal branches growing away from the center stem not zig-zagging/ crisscrossing under the foliage. Be sure that the plant represents its own natural form.

Always handle a plant by its container, picking it up by the stem or side branch is like picking your child up by the neck or ear, remember plants bruise easily when young. When you set them in your vehicle think of how you tuck a child into bed.

A little TLC will prevent a lot of potential root tearing, bark bruising and leaf crushing.

Even the firmest wire basket cannot escape mishandling, this one goes back on the truck.

Once you get home with your prize purchases place them in a cool shaded location and water well. I recommend whenever possible plant during the cooler part of the day early mornings, late afternoons are best to avoid heat stress and I am not just talking about air temperature. Digging a hole in the hot sun allows the soil to get hot and then you take the cool roots and place them in a hot dry hole? Remember the 1st time you burned your bare feet on beach sand or asphalt (ya that feeling) well if plants could talk they would tell you just how stressful that is.

On our landscape sites, we stage plants in the coolest, sheltered place possible and keep them well watered until the soils are amended and ready for planting, this also allows time for the plants to recover from handling and acclimate to their new location. Taking plants out of their non-biodegradable containers quickly and kneading/loosening the root system from the shape of the pot to resemble a root ball so the roots come in contact with the amended soil, all in less than 30 seconds the cover, (those beautiful white root hairs will dry in 60 seconds) plant in 5-10 minute intervals and water well in rotation three times (that's one complete watering) If it really hot stop planting and hose down foliage of all that has been planted, and surrounding open soils, hose down the plants you haven't planted and wait for cooler conditions to resume. Keeping moist and cool until the time is right to plant will make all the difference in the world to your plant's transition from nursery to the garden.

Shaded from direct sun and keep moist until conditions are best suited for best results.

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