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Tips on smart shopping for fall planting

Choose wisely and your garden additions will thrive

Two boxwood plants out of pots
Two 'Green Beauty' boxwoods, same size pot, same size plant. But the one on the left will have an easier time getting established because the roots aren't so matted as the one on the right. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

The weather's cooler -- hooray! -- and gardeners can return to a favorite sport: Choosing plants to add to the garden this fall.

But before rushing off to the nursery (independent or big-box),  there are ways to help ensure those new plants thrive once they're brought home and transplanted.

Missy Gable, director of the statewide UC master gardener program, did a Facebook live program on this topic last year at this time, and I'm indebted to her tips, though I have plenty of my own. (You can watch her on YouTube here . ) Viewing it again recently made me nostalgic: She filmed it at the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery just before one of the big fall plant sales. Sigh.

1) Have at least a general idea of what you're looking for.  Annuals or perennials, in-ground or container, full-sun exposure or full shade? Foundation plant or accent? This will help you focus when you arrive. We all get distracted by pretty plants; having a shopping list or a diagram of the planting area will keep you on task. I'm a sucker for salvia and coneflowers, but I know it, so I try to stay disciplined.

Yellowing vincas
If you didn't know it was near the end of the season for vincas,
those yellow leaves would be a good signal.

2) Look for healthy plants. That means good color, strong shoots, and no sign of pests. Yellowing or wilted plants are sending out distress signals. Do not purchase them (they might be discounted) unless you're experienced at reviving perennials. Avoid sick-looking annuals at all costs. This ties into the next tip:

3) Look for season-appropriate annuals and edibles. If I have a single most important tip to share here, it's this: Just because a plant is on sale at a nursery doesn't mean it's right for our climate or the current season. Nurseries are businesses, after all. The good ones make good choices, but they don't have curators on staff to review every plant.

Zinnias in a pot
Just say no to Profusion zinnias in September.

Example: Profusion zinnias in hanging pots, seen this week at a big-box nursery. Nice, but it's mid-September. Do you really want to pony up for a very-short-lived spot of color? Zinnias are summer annuals. Frost kills zinnias, and they need sun, so not a good plant to bring indoors. Leave those plants alone. Go look for chrysanthemums or lantana for a burst of fall color in a hanging pot.

4) Don't forget to read the tag. This will tell you how big the plant is supposed to get, and its water and sun requirements. Also, is it an annual or perennial? I'm sometimes surprised to see a plant I'd consider a perennial labeled an annual.

Read the fine print, or look for more information via smartphone, and there's

An annual, really? This tag was on a
5-gallon pot -- awfully big to be an annual.
Turns out it's a perennial in zones 9-11.

the answer: The plant is an annual in COLD-WEATHER climates. In Northern California, depending on your elevation and numbered planting zone, it might well be a perennial.

5) Check the roots. Both Missy Gable in the video and Sacramento County master gardener Pam Bone in her various presentations stress this. Don't be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check, or even stick your fingers in the container to feel around. A plant with curling roots, particularly a woody shrub or tree, will have a much harder time getting established. It may be impossible, in fact, and the plant will die later, at some expense. Smaller shrubs or annuals can often be saved by fluffing up or cutting apart the roots that have become matted in the container. But if you have a choice, pick the plant with healthy, white, unmatted roots.

6) Once those plants are home, tend to them closely until they're in the ground (or a new pot) and established. After all, they've been getting daily water and fertilizer, what Gable call "fertigation." That goes for drought-tolerant plants, too. She has this great comment: "No plant is low-water when you first get it." If you can't get to planting immediately (I'm guilty of this), put it in a protected spot, out of direct sun, and keep it watered until you can transplant it.

If you missed my post from a few weeks ago on local online resources for fall planting, you can find it here .


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Garden Checklist for week of June 23

Get to work in the mornings while it’s still cool.

* Irrigate early in the day; your plants will appreciate it.

* Generally, tomatoes need deep watering two to three times a week, but don't let them dry out completely. That can encourage blossom-end rot.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Avoid pot “hot feet.” Place a 1-inch-thick board under container plants sitting on pavement. This little cushion helps insulate them from radiated heat.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Mulch to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress.

* Cut back Shasta daisies after flowering to encourage a second bloom in the fall.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes. 

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

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