Buying healthy plants

            For the experience of a lifetime, visit a non-organic commercial greenhouse – not where the plants are sold, but where they’re raised. See the warning signs of chemicals in use, the technicians walking in full-body protective clothing and masks, and the oh-so-healthy-looking petunias, pansies, or whatever.

            Commercial growers (and I don’t mean to put them all in one basket – well, maybe I do), grow their plants for one thing only, and that’s to look good on the retail shelf.  They’re fed all sorts of hormones, sprayed with fungicides and pesticides, grown in planting medium, and then shipped out. That’s when the pests and diseases, lacking controls, take over. And the young seasonal helper at the big box store is charged with watering, which he doesn’t have time for.

            What happens is that you buy the plant, it dies, and you blame your brown thumb. Don’t. It was them. I always have a rule at the farm: Nothing comes into the greenhouses but seed. No plants.

So how do you know what veggie, herb, or flower starts to buy? This might help .

1.      Herbs are almost always safe. They’re rugged, and have at least one foot in the wild. Pests and diseases are seldom present.

2.      Don’t buy anything in bloom; only in bud. I know it’s hard, but transplanting is hard on a plant, and you want their energy to go to root growth, not to blossoms and fruiting. Buy blossoms now and you’ll pay down the road. Or remove the blooms when your spouse isn’t looking.

3.      Look for compact, sturdy, bushy growth.

4.      Discolored, pale, wilting leaves? Forget it.

5.      Look for root growth. Pull the plant out of the pot, and if you see roots circling around choking each other, you have two choices: (1) walk away, or (2) cut away the old roots (usually brown) and quietly pull apart the new (usually white) roots before planting. Also look for roots themselves. A good-blooming plant full of potting soil and no roots is dead, but doesn’t show it yet.

6.      Expect problems, especially scale (sticky leaves), spider mites, aphids, and whiteflies. Whenever you buy a plant, quarantine it for a few days after dipping it upside down in soapy water or spraying with insecticidal soap.

7.      As soon as possible, re-pot your plants into organic soil, whether meant for the garden or the house. Then pray, or think about where you might hang grow-lights  next winter and grow from seed.

Peace to you all,


About lifegrower

Peter V. Fossel has been gardening since he was nine, and has been an organic farmer for the last 20 years. His most recent book, “Organic Farming, Everything You Need to know” was published by Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2007. He’s written numerous gardening articles for Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Country Journal, Out Here, and American Profile among others. He was Gardens Manager for The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before returning to Cape Cod to start his newest organic venture, Swan River Farm in Dennisport, MA.
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