Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

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This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.


So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

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Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

8 thoughts on “Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics”

  1. This is an important post. Super helpful advice. Let me join in and abstract a bit: grow things that want to grow. Don’t keep on pushing the rock up the hill. Your energy and time are resources with a hard limit (which a person often realizes only after quite a lot of both had already been spent). It is good to have a dream of making something *despite* everything, but… Don’t turn that dream into a gravestone for everything else you could have done.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post, Luke! I now have a nice little patch of sea kale, having finally bought rooted plants which are prospering in my free-draining saline soil, but if I had back all the money I have spent over the years for seeds that never came up, the patch would be twice its current size. Same with Good King Henry. For the last several years, I have suffered from the delusion that as a Lambsquarters relative it should come up in great swaths from seeds, and the result is that I do not have a single specimen of this plant. I will give in and buy plants this coming year.

    Sometimes seeds surprise me. I bought pokeweed seeds and planted them in late fall, with no results in the spring, until they began coming up strongly two years after they were planted. Who knows what they were doing all that time, but here they are. But such pleasant surprises are rare.

    I think that the most important point in this whole marvelous post is the one about finding uses for the plants that will grow well for you. Your analogy to soybeans and corn is very apt. I have a fairly wide assortment of plants that hung out on my property for a few years before I learned to use them well for food. As long as you’re absolutely certain that the plant in question is not toxic, keep experimenting with it and finding out what it can do in the kitchen. Some of my top favorite perennial vegetables, such as hops shoots, were initially planted for other purposes entirely.

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    1. I am so glad that you read into it so deeply! Doesn’t surprise me though. Thank you for such a lovely compliment.

      On GKH specifically, I find that it does not self seed for me either. It needs stratification of a very gentle sort, such that I never let nature do it. My climate is just too sporadic.

      I give it about a month of hard freezing weather, then bring it inside, or in the greenhouse, where it stays cool, but not freezing, with warm sunlight, but not very warm temperature. I am always sticking the ‘source pot’ as I call it in warm or cool little corners near some heat mass like a brick, then grow the young plants in the cooler shade of something. It needs to get just to the cusp of dryness, which usually brings about germination. Plunging it back into moisture and another drying seems to be what they like best.

      I say my climate is too sporadic because the accounts of its habitat I have found say the temperature between night and day rarely fluctuates more than 2 or three degrees. It’s similar for the seasons overall -very temperate. Emulating this has been the best method for getting GKH seedlings, which are superior to divisions in this case. I divided my several year old plants this spring, and although most made it through, they were none too happy for the disturbance. They have fantastic taproots that deeply pierced through the clay soil they were in.

      I would love to hear what you decide to do with this plant.
      It really is a very nice perennial vegetable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Also have to say that I giggled at your description of trying to grow kudzu. Here in the desert I’m pretty fearless about invasives because I can make a depression in an unirrigated area and plant them there, with moisture around their roots but a barrier of dryness all around that they can’t break through. Also, if that should ever fail, I have a goat. But the two plants I have been unable to grow are kudzu and Japanese knotweed. They have shriveled and died. Just as well, any sane person would say.

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    1. Giggle away. It was pretty hilarious that I would smuggle a variegated kudzu into my food forest.

      It was part of an idea I have had for a while to create a ‘fertility engine’ or an isolated space in which invasive, super productive biomass plants could be carefully paired and harvested for mulch.

      The fact of the matter is greatest benefit is derived from an integrated, multipurpose fertility system. I had thought of placing this on an island in a pond, or digging a moat around it, but it sounds like you have quite the ideal situation for trying such a device. Let me know if you make any more attempts. I would be most interested.

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  4. Another funny multiple attempt: variegated bishop’s weed, the groundcover that others use around-up on. After three tries, I finally have just enough leaves to decorate a salad.
    BTW, did the cookbook ever come?

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    1. My “Mentor,” if that plant was growing in a prospective client’s garden, would stipulate that she would be allowed to rip it out as the first thing she did in their garden. She says it reeks of dead fish when it dies. Never noticed that smell from the ones in my step grandmother’s garden. I figured I could do without it, as it grows through mulch.

      Interesting that you use it on salad. I’ve only heard of the very youngest, emerging leaves sautéd in olive oil were any good. See here: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/growing-and-eating-ground-elder/

      Would love to see a post on that.

      I did recieve the cookbook. It’s gorgeous, and already gave me a ton of ideas for what I hope will be the cookbook of your dreams. I guess you didn’t get my email? Let me know if you didn’t because it looks like the email went out, and I certainly want to keep my contact for you up to date.

      Thanks again.

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