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

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

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.

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