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Garden Shopping: Choosing Annuals for Flower Beds

When choosing annuals to plant in flower beds, the bedding-plant industry takes some of the guesswork out of shopping for seedlings: Early in the spring and again in the fall, expect to find annuals that grow best in cool conditions. Annuals that require warmer weather generally arrive later in the spring and keep coming as long as customers keep buying. Remember, however, that nurseries can’t predict the weather. You need to be prepared to protect tender seedlings from any late frosts.

To make sure that you get a healthy plant, check the way the store displays its annuals: Are all the flowers simply lined up in the blazing sun, or have shade-lovers, such as coleus and impatiens, been protected from the sun? Most bedding plants, including those that grow best when they’re planted in full sun, do better when kept in partial shade until they’re planted.

Be sure to protect your plants as you tote them home in your car. You wouldn’t leave the family dog locked up in a hot car with the windows rolled up, so don’t treat your plants that way, either.

Nurseries sell annuals in containers of all sizes. If you’re looking for immediate impact in a flower bed or container, you may want to purchase annuals grown in 4- to 6-inch (or larger) pots. Plants grown in smaller containers take longer to fill their allotted space; however, they cost significantly less than those in larger pots, so if you can be patient, they may be a better choice.

As you shop, look for bedding annuals that are a good green color, appear to have been watered regularly, and are relatively short and stocky. Although picking out the largest plants with the most flowers is tempting, these plants may have grown too large for their containers and will suffer during transplanting. You’re better off choosing a healthy, compact plant with few or no flowers. These youngsters transplant better and quickly catch up to larger plants.

Avoid large plants growing in small pots — if a plant’s roots entirely fill its container and are poking out of the drainage holes, it may be rootbound, meaning that the roots have begun to grow in a tight spiral around the perimeter of the pot and may refuse to spread outward after transplanting, stunting the plant’s growth. At the nursery, don’t be shy about tipping the plant out of its pot or pack and inspecting its roots.

Seedlings that you purchase directly from a greenhouse benefit from a short period of hardening off. If your new seedlings have already spent some time outdoors at the nursery or garden center, they can skip the hardening off and go straight into your garden. Ask the garden center staff whether the seedlings have been hardened off and are ready for transplanting.

Statistics show that consumers are much more likely to buy plants that are already in flower. As a result, plant breeders have tinkered with genes to develop flowers that pop a blossom or two at an early age and then devote a few more weeks to vegetative growth before they start blooming again. If you buy plants already in flower, pinch off the blossom when you set out the plants — unless you’re having guests for dinner, in which case you can wait until the next day. This preemptive pinching encourages the plants to get on with the business of growing buds and branches.

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