When I worked at a garden center, I was always wading into the compost pile and filling my car with “perfectly good plants” that had been discarded for one reason or another. I must have rescued and planted over 100 plants and shrubs one busy summer, and I learned a very important lesson: most plants are thrown away for a good reason! When the potting soil settled, I ended up with only a handful of surviving, healthy plants, and some good lessons learned.
In the fall, and sometimes in late spring, you can find great end of season discounts on perennials, shrubs, and trees. Some of the plants may simply be neglected or past their bloom time, or perhaps the store is making room for new shipments for the upcoming season. However, just as I learned from the compost pile, you may find that many of the plants are doomed, no matter how carefully you tend to them, and a dead plant is no bargain at all!
Bargain Plant Shopping Tips
When buying plants from a bargain bin, take these factors into account:
- Avoid annuals: They likely won’t recover before their growing season ends.
- Inspect the roots: Gently pull the plant out of the pot and look at the roots. Look for a healthy ball of light colored roots that nearly fill the container. Avoid plants with moldy, rotten, black, or stunted roots.
- Watch for diseased plants: Leaf spots, curled or withered leaves, injured or discolored bark, and fallen or yellowed leaves are all signs of disease. The risk of infecting the rest of the garden far outweighs the slim chance of the plant’s survival.
- Avoid severely misshapen plants: If the main trunk of a tree or shrub is broken, chances are it will never recover or will always be misshapen. Dead branches can be pruned away, but the plant needs to have a basic structure. This is less important with perennials that will be dying to the ground in the fall anyway.
- Look for signs of life: New sprigs of green growth are a good sign. If the plant is dormant or has no leaves, gently scratch the bark with your fingernail. If the plant is alive, you will see green tissue just under the bark. Dead plants will be brown underneath the bark, and the branches will be brittle.
Growing Bargain Bin Plants
If plants are distressed it’s important to plant them properly, with a focus on establishing roots. That generally requires patience, and an ability to resist tending them to death. Planting tips include:
- Don’t expect your plant to bloom this year – in fact, don’t expect any visible signs for a while. If it recovers quickly, you can be pleasantly surprised. In my experience, perennials need at least a year to catch up, and trees and shrubs may take 3-5 years to equal their healthy counterparts.
- Add a source of phosphorus to the planting hole to promote root growth, but resist the urge to fertilize until at least next spring. Let your plant grow when it’s ready.
- Be sure your plant gets plenty of water and possibly some shade protection in the heat of summer.
- If you’re planting in the spring, prune your plants by a third to a half, to reduce stress on the roots.
- If you’re planting shrubs or trees in the fall, prune away any dead wood when you’re planting, then early next spring you can do a heavier pruning to reshape the plant.