March 3, 2009
Temptation at the Big Box
Piles of snow still dot the Spokane landscape, but Big Box retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot, WalMart and Costco have set out their bareroot and summer-blooming bulb displays. The brightly colored packages are all too tempting while my garden features just two colors: brownish-grey and greyish-brown.
Last year a couple of friends and I purchased quite a selection from the bareroot/bulb section, with mixed results. Here are a few of the lessons we learned:
1. SAVE YOUR RECEIPT. It's a risky business to pull tender roots out of the soil, package them in a bit of peat moss, store them in a warehouse, ship them across the country and then keep them in warm retail stores for weeks (months?) on end. Yes, the prices are a bargain. But there is a definite risk of failure, so keep your receipt in case the plants die.
2. THINK LIKE A RABBIT. You may not be able to see the tuber inside the bag, but you can probably feel it. Peony and dahlia tubers should feel firm, like the type of carrot you'd want to eat. They shouldn't be dried out into hard sticks, or shriveled into soft lumps, or rotten into icky-squishy mush. This applies to iris rhizomes, lily bulbs, and hosta/daylily roots as well.
3. BEWARE OF MISLABELING. It's hard to tell a 'Guacamole' hosta from a 'Patriot' hosta when looking at just the roots. It's very easy to tell them apart when they're leafed out. Last year I bought 6 bareroot 'Minuteman' hostas. Only one of them ever came up - in July - and it wasn't 'Minuteman.' Thankfully I brought my crinkled and battered receipt back to Lowe's and received a refund.
4. GET THEM IN THE GROUND ASAP. The longer a plant is out of the ground, the greater the danger of it drying out and dying. Keep bareroots stored in a cool place until you can plant them, which hopefully will be soon after purchase. The bareroot daylilies and siberian irises that I've ordered online came with instructions to soak them in lukewarm water for an hour or two as soon as they were received. That technique might increase your success with big box bareroots as well.
5. IMPATIENCE NOW WILL REQUIRE PATIENCE LATER. It's tempting to buy bareroot now, before the potted plants are available. But the bareroot versions are often tiny and take a long time to get established and start growing. The potted versions are probably more expensive, but you'll get more plant for your money.
With these caveats in mind, buying bareroot can be very economical - if you're patient (and if you save your receipt!). The bulbs sold at Big Box stores are also a good value. Again, mislabeling is a danger. I wasn't pleased last spring when a dozen 'white' tulips bloomed orange and yellow. I dug them all up and returned them to Lowe's for a refund. But the 'Stargazer' lilies that I bought from WalMart were lovely last summer. I just purchased more of them today at Lowe's - five for $6 is a great price, especially since I didn't have to pay extra for shipping. The bulbs (a few of them are pictured below) weren't quite as large as the 'Casa Blanca' lily bulbs I ordered from Dutch Gardens last spring, but they should produce some flowers this year and even more in years to come.
You can see that the plant shoots were already poking up from the bulbs. Last year I accidentally broke the shoot off a bulb, and it didn't ever grow. I was especially careful with these, and managed to plant all fifteen bulbs this morning without any breakage. It was wonderful to work out in the garden again! Of course, my back is a little sore tonight - I'm out of shape for gardening - but the fleeting soreness will be well justified when the fragrant and showy 'Stargazer' blooms appear in July or August. I'll be sure to post a pictures.