how to shop for plants with an expert’s eye, with holly scoggins
TAKE YOUR PLANT-SHOPPING to the next level this spring. No, not by spending more, but by arriving at the garden center with a new appreciation for where those plants came from en route there; why they cost what they do; what to look for on a label, and how to really examine them–and I mean examine–to be sure you’re getting the healthiest, highest quality. Hint: Don’t get distracted by the flowers; the roots are where the action is.
Our guide is Virginia Tech associate professor of horticulture Dr. Holly Scoggins, a herbaceous plant specialist and educator, who also teaches greenhouse management and ornamental plant production and marketing. She conducts research to help commercial growers of container plants get it right, optimizing inputs like water and fertilizer, for instance, or different kinds of growing media.
In other words: Holly Scoggins knows a well-grown plant when she sees one.
Because she apparently can’t get enough plants, Holly also operates a U-pick blueberry farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, blogs at The Garden Professors blog at extension.org, and contributes to the Professors’ popular Facebook page.
On my public-radio show and podcast I learned a whole new style of plant-shopping etiquette, and got over my sticker shock with the insights Holly provided. Read along as you listen to the Feb. 9, 2015 edition using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
listen/read: q&a with holly scoggins
Q. The kind of teaching you do can’t all take place in a conventional classroom. I hear what are probably tall tales about you terrorizing nearby big box-store workers when you and your students arrive and start unpotting plants to look at their root systems. What happens on these outings?
A. It’s with my nursery-production class—and the students are also growing their own plants at this time, to sell at the plant sale. So they’re really tuned in to producing quality plants. They want to see what’s out there, so we do big box-store comparisons, and go to independent garden centers. I show them it’s OK to take a plant out of the pot.
It’s your right as a gardener to take a look at the root zone, and make sure it’s a well-rooted plant—that you’re not just buying a rooted cutting with a lot of media, or worse: an overgrown, rootbound plant. [Top of page, a well-rooted container of lilies.]
We look at the displays, the pricing, the maintenance of the plants, is everything watered…and they walk around with little clipboards, making notes. So yes, it does cause some consternation. I always try to find the manager first.
Q. For us gardeners, what is good garden-shopping etiquette? Is it really OK to unpot the plants?
A. Absolutely. That’s the engine for the plant. Everyone goes, “Ooh, it’s in flower!” but you’re not just getting the foliage and flowers. You need a great-looking root system, and need to make sure there aren’t bugs in there.
Sniff the rootball [laughter]: You don’t want some mushy, overwatered things with root rot going on; check one of the plants. Even in a cell flat of pansies, lift one out (if you can—if they haven’t been on the bench for too long to lift out).
At the same time, you’re looking for any pest or pathogens of the foliage, for instance for target-shaped spots that look like a virus.
Q. What is a well-rooted plant? Am I looking for the cell or pot to be filled with roots, but not overfilled?
A. Right. But if I really want that plant, I’ll even buy it if it’s rootbound [laughter]…
Q. Me too, Holly.
A. Yes, let’s just get that out of the way. [Laughter.] I don’t always practice what I preach.
But you want to know that you can loosen up those roots when you plant it, and make sure there are not circling roots, or stuff coming out of the bottom of the pot. Often this is more an issue for shrubs and trees than perennials. Most of our perennials are pretty fibrous-rooted, but if the root mass is really dense and it doesn’t look like there is any media left in the pot, chances are it’s been sitting on the bench for a season or more, and rootbound. That’s not the highest-quality plant.
I like to reward growers and garden centers by buying their top-quality plants, and encouraging them to stock more like those.
Q. That’s really our goal: to look for the top-quality plant, and vote for more like it with our dollars.
I think what you said earlier—and what really gets me—is something I say a lot to people: I don’t want to buy what amounts to a cellpack-sized plant, a “liner,” in a gallon of soil. When I get it home, and go to tap it out of the pot, I don’t want to find only one little lump of root in the whole gallon or 2 gallons of soil.
A. You’re just shocked, and it happens to all of us. A lot of this happens because at big nurseries, there are the sales folks who are selling wholesale to the garden centers, and there are the actual growers, who are trying desperately to hold on to stuff until it’s market size. Sometimes those two factions don’t always agree, and the plants get sold out from under the growers too soon.
Q. I have a thing about labels. Labels have gotten big, bigger, biggest–making room for things like those QR codes your cellphone can read and such [above]. But is bigger really better? What information is most important to look for on the label to decide if the plant’s for you?
A. Horticulture in general has been a little late to the whole branding game. We’re the last frontier—everything else in our life is branded, and finally we’re just getting into it.
A lot of companies are really taking advantage of it to give more detail on cultural requirements, and some other seem to just take up a lot of space listing companion plants. I just throw that out as an example, because you usually can’t find what else they just said to plant with it, and they give you no reason why to plant them together.
And then they get into a lot of flowery descriptions, and the bigger photos.
There is a regional nursery in the mid-Atlantic that’s known for what they call “the big tag.” It’s a great marketing tool for small garden centers because it’s informative, and it’s got a lot a lot of stuff on it. It’s useful.
But when you get done with a big shopping trip, and you’ve planted everything out, and you’re left with all that plastic—a big wad of tags.
Q. Some of the label entries like “disease resistant” or “part shade” can be confusing, almost euphemistic to the untrained consumer. Disease resistant sounds a lot like it isn’t going to get any diseases. And “part shade” isn’t really clear, to my mind, either.
A. I don’t think people are using the QR codes much. Often it just links to a web page with the same information as on the tag—so it’s all about what’s on the back end of those QR codes.
As far as “part shade” goes, to me that means, “Plant it wherever you can.” In my scientific experience it means, “Stick it anywhere.”
It changes with where you are at in the country, too. I started gardening in Athens, Georgia, which is a solid Zone 7B now, and I’ve worked my way north and now I’m in the Arctic of Zone 6, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Even just that one zone–and I live in an elevation that’s maybe 5B—makes a huge difference. When I first moved here I flipped out that people have hostas around their mailbox in full sun—that could never happen in Georgia.
Of course I was also perplexed at frozen soil. “What? You can’t garden in February?”
And the disease-resistance thing: That’s pretty useless unless they specify what disease. There are some generally tough plants we know about that end up on the list of plants that deer won’t eat, and if a deer won’t eat it, it’s usually pest- and disease-resistant, too.
But I’d rather see tags that are more specific—though anything that says it’s powdery-mildew resistant just means it’ll get it a week later than the others.
Q. Like the bee balms, the Monarda.
A. Monarda is one of my favorite perennials, and I’ve grown many different varieties, powdery-mildew resistant or not. They all end up with it every August like clockwork.
Q. Let’s talk pricing. I know a lot of people get sticker shock when they see the price of some plants. A recent story you wrote for “Fine Gardening” detailed the whole life cycle of nursery plants, from in many cases a decade or more of research and development before they show up on the garden-center shelf. Can you give us the short version of what’s invested into a plant before it comes to market?
A. I don’t think a lot of gardeners realize the complexity of the system behind getting that plant there. And it depends on the plant, because if you’re shopping for basil at your local little greenhouse, they probably planted it from a packet of seeds and it was grown right there on the bench.
But if you’re looking for a shrub you saw in a magazine, like one of the new Color Choice flowering shrubs from Proven Winners, or some new Hydrangea or a compact Buddleia, or one of the new Heuchera…
Q. …of which there are 10 million… [laughter]
A. …then the supply chain is pretty complex. It all goes back to your breeder. That breeder may be independent, or may work in R&D for a company. And that can just take years, especially for woody plants: to get things to flower, get seeds, cross it, and all that. Traditional breeding is under-appreciated.
Then if they do come up with something new and promising, it will probably be picked up by a plant-promotion company, especially if it’s by an independent breeder that doesn’t have a marketing outlet. This is a new thing in our industry, but it’s great—and kind of like a sports agent for plants.
The breeder doesn’t have to deal with the trialing, and patenting—the plant-promotion company will trial it to make sure it does what it’s supposed to. They’ll help with the complicated patent process; most every new plant now is patented. If all goes well with that, they’ll come up with the marketing materials, to get the word out to garden writers, bloggers, consumers.
Then there are the propagative growers, the folks that are doing the propagation—producing the “plugs” and “liners.”
Q. So getting bigger numbers of this new plant, bulking it up.
A. They make all these little plants, and then they sell and ship them to a finishing grower, which could be a nursery or greenhouse. And those trays of liners are shipped out, and the growers put weeks or months or even years into producing a marketable plant.
Q. So we’ve got a lot of players—the breeder, the sports agent, the propagative grower–even before it gets to the local nursery–all of whom have to be compensated in the life cycle of this plant
A. And if the finishing grower is a wholesaler, it gets sold and shipped to the final retail location—a final step. It sounds like a complex supply chain, and it can stretch from one side of the country to another. But I don’t want people to think it’s an industrial complex. These are all businesses run by folks who love and adore plants. Very few people are getting filthy rich in this business.
Q. Since perennials are the area of your particular expertise, I have to ask: What are the perennials Holly Scoggins thinks are most overused?
A. I have a hard time with that—and part of it comes with teaching, because I always have to teach the basics. I don’t really think in terms of overused. I think in terms of bread and butter; these are things that are time-proven. I really don’t get my knickers in a twist seeing Leucanthemum ‘Becky’ or Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ everywhere.
Q. Good point.
A. I appreciate that they stood the test of time, and you can’t overuse perennials in my opinion.
I do hate monkey grass—Liriope—if that helps. [Laughter.]
Q. We’ll put that on the list!
What about perennials that are undiscovered/should be used more, then?
A. Ornamental grasses. They are simply the most underused, overlooked sector of containerized perennials. There are so many awesome natives out there; the breeders are working on improving their habits.
But they’re never going to look good on a garden-center bench in May. They don’t have flowers—they’re just grassy. People are going to pass by not thinking about what their gardens are going to look like in August, September, October. I urge people to educate themselves about them—and they’re still beautiful even in the dead of winter. [Above photo: Sporobolus heterolepis, or Prairie dropseed, Holly’s favorite grass.]
Q. You hinted about the trend toward natives, but what else is popular, or in demand?
A. What growers want and what gardeners want are not always the same thing. [Laughter.]
Growers want ease of propagation; ability to ship plants on a rolling rack; compact varieties; and great bloom time, since nobody buys things that aren’t in flower. But there are some things that R&D folks are working on, such as sterility—especially with our non-native species, so we can enjoy them without feeling guilty that they will spread.
I think the interest in natives is going to continue—and that is the Wild West of plant breeding. We have so many native that we’re using in our garden that are just straight species or just one step away. So many improvements can be made, such as longer bloom time or compact habit, so that folks with smaller gardens can enjoy Joe-pye weed or the perennial sunflowers. There are improvements that can really help get more natives out to people and into their gardens.
Q. I’m looking forward to them, and I’m going to go out plant shopping before long and take things out of their pots and say, “Holly Scoggins said to.”
A. And if anybody gives you a hard time, give them my number.
Q. I’m giving them your QR code! [Laughter.]
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 19, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos courtesy Holly Scoggins; QR code and label from Proven Winners.)