Choosing the right plant

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by Dan Driedger

Scanning the web can quickly reveal a host of individuals and businesses who are selling plants at this time of year. Interest in growing something has been heightened by stay at home orders and the need for social distancing. Many prospective gardeners may be making their first attempt at actively trying to grow their own food.

Here are some considerations that will help you in making selections:

1. Is the plant suitable for the soil conditions?
A garden will reflect its soil conditions. Is the soil sandy, loam, or clay? A sandy soil will feel gritty and a moist, squeezed handful will still tend to fall apart. It is not very water retentive. A clay soil will tend to feel silky and slippery when wet, and a moist squeezed handful will tend to stick together. Loam soil is in-between these two types. Most gardeners prefer sandy or loam soils. All soils can be productive but growing conditions may vary. Sandy and loam soils will require more attention to watering throughout the season. Another soil consideration is PH (is the soil acidic or basic). Most plants will grow in average PH, but if you desire to grow blueberries or black berries or evergreens, you will want to add a soil acidifier. If you are buying plants from individuals rather than nurseries, you may be taking home backyard soil whereas best practices of nurseries require them to use professional plant starting mixes. There is a risk of taking home your friend’s soil security issues if the plants are potted in home soil. Most plants will do well in plant starting mixes. The one exception that I am aware of is sweet potatoes as they do not do well in artificial soils.

2. Is the plant suitable for your backyard micro climate?
If you have a sheltered south exposure in which to plant, you will be able to move to the next zone for horticulture. If you are living in zone 4, you may plant anything zone 5 and lower, but it will not allow you to grow peaches in Saskatchewan – believe me I tried. They did survive the first winter. Plants that thrive in intense sunshine such as grapes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers will enjoy a south exposure but will have delayed or poor quality fruit if planted in shaded areas. These plants require a reasonably hot summer for respectable production. Cool weather plants are peas, kale, cabbage, beets and lettuce. I intentionally listed peas first as they have the capability of withstanding 7 degrees of frost (F). These are for early planting or for less intense sunshine. Most seed packets will give some indication of sunshine requirements.

3. Is the cost appropriately matched to gardening expectations?
If the garden is for hobby and recreational enjoyment, cost really isn’t a factor, but if it is for food production, the cost of plants cannot exceed production expectations. A plant should not cost more than the financial return on its production. Some private sellers are asking excessive prices for a single plant. It is for this reason that it is impractical to purchase pre-started pea and bean plants. Peas and beans can be started in greenhouses – they are easy to start – but do not transplant well. They will grow – they will even be into production earlier, but in my experience the transplanted plants (peas & beans) bore less than their seed-sown cousins.

4. What are the plant characteristics that you want in seedlings?
Look for appropriate size, colour, and vigour. Plants should be robust but not leggy. Plants become leggy when they do not have sufficient light. The coloration of the plant should be true to character for the variety. Overcrowding in plant cells will tend to produce yellow leaves. Plants that are in cell trays of 72 plants per flat should be upsized to larger pots when they are 2-4 inches high. The key determining factors are the size of plant and sufficient rooting to hold the root ball together during upsizing. Plants that are allowed to become root bound before being upsized will require special attention. A root bound plant will need to have its roots spread out by tearing open one side of the root ball when it is planted in the garden. If one does not open the root ball, the plant can remain root bound all summer; meaning that the roots do not penetrate into the soil for moisture and nutrient absorption. These plants will easily be dislodged while gardening and do not produce properly.

5. Have the plants been “hardened off?”
Plants need transition time to adjust from the sheltered greenhouse environment to the garden. This transition time is best accomplished by placing the plant tray in a sunny sheltered area for a few hours of the day, and then extending the time for several days. Plants usually come to consumers directly from the greenhouse, and it is the grower’s responsibility to harden them off. If your plant does not adjust well and is hurried through this stage, there will be time needed for healing. This is a greater than necessary transplant shock. Transplant shock may result in a loss of a couple weeks of time and growth as the plant adjusts to its new surroundings. Transplant shock can be reduced by using a mild transplant fertilizer. The best application method I found was to prepare a tub of water and fertilizer, and then dip the trays of plants into it for a few seconds (thus flooding the roots). This results in easy removal from the plant trays and also gives the plants the necessary and readily available nutrition. After years of doing this, I have become convinced that transplant fertilizer is the most important fertilizer of the growing season.

Dan Driedger has 12 years experience as a horticultural grower and many previous years as a backyard grower.

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