When I moved north to the Pacific Northwest more than 30 years ago, I was shocked to see annuals, vegetables and perennials in 4-inch pots or even 1-gallon containers. This never happened in California, where the growing season was long enough that we could plant all of these types of plants from little 6-packs, knowing full well that they would mature in plenty of time before the season came to an end. This, of course, is not always the case here in Washington — especially this year.
With the delay of summer weather, it is now more important than ever to purchase larger, more established plants, considering how late in the season it is. This means that when you go to the garden center, look for tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers that are well-established. Try to stay away from any 6-packs, and go for at least 4-inch containers, and even preferably 1-gallon ones. The exceptions might be corn and onion starts, as these should take off once they are separated.
In the case of perennials, most garden centers will shy away from 4-inch plants and stock mostly 1-gallon or larger sizes. Part of the reason for this is that it is really hard to keep 4-inch plant material alive and healthy-looking as we move into the summer months, so moving to larger containers helps reduce shrinkage and ultimately provides you with a better-looking plant.
This year one of our major suppliers (Monrovia Nurseries) really upped their game and produced perennials in 3-gallon containers. We have brought into the nursery 8 to 10 different varieties to choose from, and they are humongous! These big, beautiful plants will provide instant gratification the moment you get them into the ground, and at the end of the season (or early in the following spring), you will be able to divide them into 4 (or even smaller) divisions to spread around the yard — which actually makes them cheaper than purchasing a single one-gallon container. Like buying the family-size box of cereal, it really is a better buy in this case to go for the bigger package.
As a side note, if you are planting ground covers and trying to decide between 4-inch pots and 1-gallon containers, remember that 4-inch pots are usually spaced 18 inches apart, while gallon pots can be planted 36 inches apart. By doubling the spacing (18 inches to 36 inches), you will actually need one quarter the amount of material, so that helps considerably to mitigate the cost difference between a 4-inch and 1-gallon plant. Also, since 1-gallon pots have a larger root system, they are generally easier to establish, which translates into a much lower loss percentage. Going bigger just makes more sense sometimes.
Regardless of what size you start with, be sure to beef up the soil with plenty of organic material, such as bagged compost, and add generous amounts of organic fertilizer. The goal is to get your new plants off to a good start, and the only way to accomplish that is with good soil and, of course, plenty of water. This year, more than ever, it is critical that we don’t skimp on the soil amendments and food. There is nothing more discouraging than getting to the end of the season and looking at your tomato plants covered with green fruit that you know is never going to ripen in time for winter.
Mark my words: This year, “Go Big, or Go Home.”
Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, and can be reached at email@example.com