I'm often asked about where to buy plants: is it necessary to go to a proper Garden Centre, or can we take advantage of the very cheap plants which they sell at the “sheds” such as B&Q and Homebase and, increasingly, our local supermarkets.
On the face of it, it seems like an excellent idea: they are close to home, you were going there anyway, the plants are cheap and look very cheerful, and big shops like that would not want to sell duff plants, would they? They know they need to keep their shoppers coming back.
However, I would say that "buyer beware" is the phase you need: you (“one”) can get excellent bargains, but on the other hand, supermarkets and “sheds” are famous for not watering the plants until they are on the verge of death.
This means that often, you buy a plant that looks fine, but has been repeatedly stressed, to the point where it fails to flourish once planted out.
Also, they usually import their stock, so it is not fully hardened off to our climate - often you will notice that the "garden" section is at least partially roofed. This means that you will have to take care to harden off any plants for a few days, before planting them out.
So, how do you ensure that you get the true bargains?
Firstly, check the weight of the plant. Pick it up, does it feel proportionally heavy enough? If your hand flies up into the air with the plant, ie if it is a lot lighter than you were expecting it to be, then it has been under-watered and the compost has dried out. If the plant is not already drooping, it soon will be!
Next, look closely at the plant, and check for dead leaves in and around the base of the plant. If it's been stressed to the point of dropping leaves, then it's going to take a while to recover, even if it now looks superficially healthy.
Third, check for dead sections within the plant: if part of it is already dead, there's no point buying it, even if it's cheap!
Fourthly, if no-one is looking (bearing in mind that they usually have cameras all over the shop) de-pot the plant and check the roots. This means tipping the plant upside down, with the other hand ready to catch it, in order to gently get it out of the pot so that you can see the roots. You are looking for three things:
a) is there a good strong network of roots?
b) is the compost dark and a solid mass (ie wet, which is good) or very light-coloured and crumbly (ie has not been watered properly, which is very bad)?
c) are there any vine weevils or other nasties to be seen?
d) is it pot-bound, ie are there great chunky roots circling round and round, or is there a glazed mass of fibrous roots with no soil to be seen? Either of which are bad signs.
e) does the plant refuse to be tipped out (if the plant is welded to the inside of the pot, this is a sign that it is thoroughly pot-bound and will struggle to establish itself)?
OK that was five things, I like to be thorough. As soon as you have finished checking, ease the plant carefully back into the pot, and make sure it is pressed well down into the pot: the reason we plant growers don't like people de-potting plants is that it can be very damaging to the plant, especially if they knock some of the soil off, or push it back into the pot at an odd angle, or spill the mulch on the floor and don't bother to pick it up and replace it.
If the plants passes all these points, then it's probably ok to buy it.
There is just one other point I would like to raise about buying plants from these outlets - and this includes garden centres - and that's the risk of neonicotinoids. These are a group of insecticides which are routinely used in the production of commercially-grown plants, and which are devastating for bees. Don't take my word for it, look it up for yourselves.
Even the RHS had to admit recently that they could not, with any degree of certainty, confirm that any plants in their range of so-called “bee friendly” plants, had not been treated with neonicotinoids, which is pretty disgraceful.
So instead of buying plants from big suppliers, it really is better to collect seed, take cuttings, and propagate your own plants: then sell or swap plants amongst friends and neighbours, and GreenPlantSwap members. Get together locally with friends; contact your local gardening clubs and go to their plant sales; check out nearby allotments, as there is often an unofficial club or group there, who would be most willing to have a plant swap or plant sale; look for people nearby who sell plants outside their houses; and if you have a lot of excess plants, you could consider doing something similar - you might even make a few pounds!
This reduces plant miles to pretty much zero, it reduces plastic waste - as you will be re-using plastic pots instead of buying plants and ending up with stacks of plastic pots - and you are guaranteed to get plants which will flourish in your local climate.
This can cut out the risk of neonicotinoids in your garden altogether, quite apart from saving you a lot of money, and making you a lot of new friends!