Saturday, April 10, 2010

Caveat emptor!

Planted too early?! The retail conundrum.

A nice young lady came into my nursery yesterday. She moved to California this year and is new to gardening here. Seeing vegetable plants at a large retailer in March, she purchased and planted the whole range of summer vegetables. Now she wanted my advice about what was going wrong, which was pretty much everything.

She planted in March: beans, corn (from six-packs), eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, tomatoes.

Like many customers nowadays, she brought me digital pictures of her garden. Nothing is growing at all. Pests are eating the leaves of the young seedlings. Leaves of the squash are curled and distorted. The corn is blowing over, not growing. All the plants look yellowish.

We discussed possible strategies for the snails and earwigs that are eating the seedlings. But I had to tell her that the basic problem with all the plants is that they were purchased and planted too early, in soil that is too cold, with night temperatures much lower than these summer vegetables prefer.

Let’s review those symptoms:
• Pest damage
• Curled, distorted leaves, burnt on the edges
• Plants blown over, bent at the stem by wind
• Leaves yellowing
• No new growth.

Although I now have gained a long-term customer, she was dismayed to learn that a store was selling plants at an inappropriate time. I try to be diplomatic in explaining the purchasing and marketing practices of these large retail chains. But the fact is that the large retailers have no disincentive to sell plants out of season. They don’t really even have buyers for their garden departments anymore: the plant materials are mostly chosen, delivered, and displayed by the wholesale growers. The growers take all the risk.

Only very large growers can produce enough material to supply the big-box retailers. It is possible that these plants were appropriate in warmer parts of their delivery range, such as Southern California. But there is no feedback process telling them that summer vegetables are inappropriate in retail stores in central and foothill regions of Northern California in March.

Thanks to guaranteed sale and pay-at-scan arrangements with the growers, the retailer doesn’t pay for anything until it is actually purchased. If it dies in the store or doesn’t sell, the grower absorbs the cost. Apparently, these large growers consider it worth the risk. Why? Because unsuspecting novice gardeners will purchase the plants, thinking (reasonably) that if it is in the store, it must be planting time.

Yes, certain large retailers “guarantee” their plants. A plant guarantee is a great marketing ploy, since hardly anybody ever returns a plant. Sales staff aren’t going to discourage the early sales. So caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

I suppose this is all of some benefit to independent garden stores, for the small number of gardeners who find their way to us to get advice after they plant. But what about the ones who get enthusiastic about gardening, then get poor results and give up? Is this beneficial for the industry as a whole? How many plants get thrown out after being delivered hundreds of miles from the growing ground?

Here’s the basic info:
Plant tomatoes when night temperatures are 50 degrees F or above. Usually that is late April in Northern California’s central valley. That is when we plant beans, regular sweet corn, potatoes, cucumbers and summer squash.

Plant peppers and eggplant when night temperatures are 55 degrees F or above. Usually that is May. That is when we plant lima beans, cantaloupe, extra-sweet and white corn, okra, pumpkins, winter squash, and watermelons.

There’s no hurry. We have a very long growing season, extending through October most years. Summer vegetables can be planted well into June or even July in some cases.

It’s ok to buy the plants early if you see varieties you like. Just keep the pots in a warm place and keep them watered. Transplant them into the next sized pot if they are root-bound. Container soil will warm up and keep the roots warm. Raised beds warm up ahead of garden soil, so you can plant in those beds a couple of weeks before you would out in the open ground.


  1. Bravo for you for setting the poor woman straight. This immoral and unknowledgeable style of doing business is precisely why I try to only support the local nursery and/or local growers at the Farmer's market -- and avoid the big national chains for gardening. It makes me a little shocked to hear of someone planting *corn* from six-packs. :(