The Virtue of Buying Small Plants

December 8th, 2019

Have you ever seen a seed grow? Stupid question right? You’re on a gardening blog I’m sure you’ve seen a seed grow.

Have you ever stopped to think about the difference in vigor because something grow from seed versus something grown in a pot and then transplanted at some later date? It is astounding. I have seen trees, when grown from seed, get taller than me in a single year, and that rate of growth does not slow down.

The reason of course is roots. When planted from seed roots do as roots do best and spread widely and deeply, depending on the species of course. This natural root formation is most ideal for almost any plant (tomatoes, perhaps, being one exception, because when you transplant them you can do it deeply and allow more root formation along the buried stem). The larger a plant or tree is, the greater hurt it will have incurred by being in a container.

I can buy in early spring a buddleia from a mail order nursery. It will arrive small, a couple inches tall maybe, in a 3 inch pot, the roots barely filling that container. If I then plant it it will have time to develop, roots will spread, and it will end up very healthy and large and floriferous by the end of summer. I did this this spring with both hardy hibiscus and buddleia (I mean I’ve bought hundreds of plants from mail order nurseries, but these two are foremost in my mind right now) and both ended up 3’x3′ by the end of the summer, super healthy, only watered with rain, and they came in little pots.

Brick and mortar nurseries would never sell that plant, they know consumers will not buy it unless they see its blooms at the store. So they only get sold in later summer, by that time they will be maybe in a 1 gallon pot, which will still be too small for them. They will have survived only by daily extra waterings at the wholesale nursery, that is the only way their confined roots were able to get enough water to stay alive. You can cut away and tease the roots before planting but that will not solve the problem that the overall area of soil covered by the roots is not sufficient to support the top growth of the plant without additional care and you will essentially have to give it supplemental watering for the remainder of the year or risk it dying, especially if it ever gets hot and dry where you live. The spread of roots in a potted plant is measured in inches, the spread of roots in a soil grown plant is measured in feet.

I ran into this problem in a big way this summer with some rudbeckia I bought from Lowes. Not faulting Lowes or anything but they were so incredibly root bound they had to likely been getting watered multiple times a day to survive, and so when I planted them, and when I even continued to water them, they still keeled over. For many plants having them grow all year in a small container and then selling them once they bloom is not going to produce a healthy result in your garden.

Have you ever purchased a tree from a nursery and had a hard time wrapping your head around how so much tree can be supported by so little pot? Daily supplemental watering and fertilizer. Which is fine if you’re planting this tree near a hose, but trees are often planted in the far reaches of our yards or property and what then? Death by dehydration. However if you purchased a smaller tree, earlier in the season, this might not be as large of a problem. Additionally this is why people say “fall is for planting.” By planting trees in the fall you’re giving them time to get their roots established and spread out more before the introduction of summer heat.

Still, no matter what, a seed grown plant or tree will probably always be more vigorous than a container grown one, and one that is transplanted when small will be more vigorous than one that is transplanted when large. We all want instant gratification, so it may take a leap of faith to go with something smaller, however I can almost guarantee it will eventually catch up.

That being said, there is a virtue of buying larger plants and trees – they’re harder for deer to kill outright.

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