By Dr. Leonard Perry Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist University of Vermont
Bedding plants are the answer to a gardener’s prayer for instant color and faster growth in a summer flower garden. With our short growing season, why wait for seeds to sprout and plants to grow when you can achieve the same end result–and a lot quicker–with bedding plants?
“Bedding plant” is the industry’s term for a young plant that has been grown in the greenhouse from seed or a cutting. Bedding plants generally are grown in small “packs” divided into three, four, or six sections. Larger flats hold 12 to 24 packs. As a rule, flats are the better buy if you need a lot of plants although it’s best to bring your pocket calculator with you and work out the math.
If you have a choice, buy packs with large, deep cells spaced as far apart as possible. These larger cells allow plants to develop bigger root systems and not dry out as quickly.
Choose bedding plants that are well-proportioned with stocky stems. Avoid plants that are leggy or limp. Leaves should have a rich, green color. If foliage appears mottled or the edges of the leaves are curled or brown, the plants may be suffering from pests. Check the undersides of leaves for signs of spider webs or aphids and other small insects.
Plants with yellowed lower leaves most likely have suffered from inadequate watering. If the soil mixture has been allowed to dry out completely, the root system can be permanently damaged, and the plants may never flourish.
Resist the temptation to buy plants in full bloom. In fact, you may want to purchase plants without any blooms or even buds. The reason is that the “energy” a plant spends on producing blooms takes away from the “energy” it needs to establish itself in your garden. A plant in full flower may take longer to get established and start producing more blooms.
To determine the number of plants to buy, measure the area of your garden and calculate its square footage (width x length = square feet). Then determine the spacing requirements of each variety. If the recommended spacing is six inches, use four plants per square foot; for eight-inch spacing, two plants; 12-inch spacing, one plant. Buy a few more plants than you need in case of damage by animals, pests, or the weather. It’s also a good idea to plant a few in four- or six-inch pots to hold for later in the summer, in case you need replacement plants.
If you can’t plant immediately, store your plants in a protected area out of wind and free of danger of a late frost. Water as needed to prevent them from drying out.
Try to transplant on an overcast day or late in the afternoon to minimize stress. Water each plant thoroughly before removing from the pack.
Plants should pop out easily when the pack or pot is turned on its side. If they don’t, gently squeeze the bottom of the cell or pot to loosen the roots, then try again. Handle plants carefully, holding them by the ball of soil and roots.
Prepare the planting bed by loosening the soil to a depth of six to eight inches. Follow the recommended spacing (check the plant label or gardening reference book), arranging–and rearranging–the plants on top of the garden bed until placed where you want them.
Dig each hole slightly larger than the root ball. Add two inches of compost or composted manure, and mix in well. Gently place the plant in the hole, filling in with garden soil and tamping securely into place. Pinch off any open blooms. This helps them put energy into their roots before flowering again.
Drench the soil around the plants, watering slowly, deeply, and evenly. Provide daily attention to your new plants for the first few weeks, watering as the soil surface dries out. Fertilize once with an organic fertilizer such as 5-3-4 or a synthetic fertilizer like 10-10-10, according to the instructions on the product label.
Mulch to retain moisture and keep down weeds. Use a two-inch layer of bark chips, straw, or other organic matter. Avoid leaves, unless shredded, as they may pack down keeping water and air from the plant roots.