There’s enough seed in each packet for hundreds of basil plants and, if properly stored, will last four to five years.
A bare root plant of a Sweet Spirit rose that, when planted in April, didn't look like much. Expectations were tempered for year one.
The Purple Star magnolia has striking color for a magnolia and is not easily found locally. In 2012, when this mail order tree arrived in a one gallon pot, it was less than 3 feet tall. A decade later, it is nearly 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
The somewhat scarce and expensive Japanese woodland peony grows in deciduous woods and can naturalize, but you won’t find it at local garden centers.
By mid-June, the Sweet Spirit rose was a passing 2 feet tall and blooming, but don’t expect similar results from bare rooted fruit trees, which can take several years to flower and fruit once planted.
Sitting in my office on a very cold winter day, I looked out at the barely snow-covered lawn and realized it was the perfect weather to fire up my garden fantasy machine.
Any day now, I’d sow some basil seeds in a few cell packs, keep the soil warm for a week or so, and then my first crop would germinate, nearly ready to work with as the 2022 gardening season gets underway — indoors.
Rushing it? Yes. Should everyone be sowing seeds indoors now? No, but soon.
What mid-January means for most of us, or should mean, is that it’s time to make sure we have our veggie garden seeds selected, purchased and in hand, or at the very least ordered. Trees, shrubs and perennials on your wish list should be picked from nurseries that offer online browsing of their in-stock lists, and the catalogues that arrive in the mail shouldn’t be banished to a pile, only to be rediscovered when everything you want is sold out. More on that shortly.
Yes, it is too soon to start basil indoors and, if I was a novice, the seeds that I’d plant in the next few days would end up as spindly, scrawny plants with only the vaguest hint of this culinary herb — and they would probably never make it to the garden.
But mine will, and so can yours if you take care of this warmth-loving plant’s basic needs — which, most importantly, are a bright sunny window that gets light for four to six hours per day, as well as heat to keep the plant warm.
Last year, I tried this on a whim. I started my basil seeds in January and placed my pots about a foot from a window — where the sun would give the soil an extra boost of heat during the day to stimulate germination — on a table above where the heat rises from the hot water heating line. In a week to 10 days, I had several seedlings in each cell and, after a couple of weeks, I thinned the seedlings to two per cell.
A few weeks later, I bumped up the cells to 3- or 4-inch pots, keeping them in the same spot but turning them several times a week to keep the plants from growing to one side. With every watering, I mixed in a tiny dose of organic fertilizer — a very tiny dose.
When the leaves started to fill in and the two uppermost leaves were about a half inch long, I looked for the apical meristem, or the growing tip of the plant, and used a pair of tweezers to carefully prune out the next set of leaves that were emerging at the base of the two larger leaves. This causes auxins, or plant hormones, to be released, which send out a signal that essentially says “branch” — and sure enough, four to seven days later, two new shoots emerged from where the original single shoot was.
This process continued for many weeks, as the plant grew taller and I forced it to continue to branch. About two months later, I could harvest some fresh basil and, while it was not as fragrant and tasty as garden plants, it was pretty decent for late February.
I continued to lightly feed the plants at each watering, and pinch them, and turn them — and when they seemed to fill their pots (they will be taking up a lot of water and that will be a repotting clue), I bumped them up to 6-inch pots. Don’t rush this step. The growing and harvesting of the leaves only continues, and when it warms up in May, the plants can move outdoors to harden off. Give them some sun, but not too much or it will burn them, and keep them out of the wind.
By the middle to end of May, the plants can then be planted in the garden. Continue to feed them and prune them through the summer. Keep an eye out for aphids and whitefly, and protect the plants at any hint of a late frost. Last year, I ended up with six plants that were about a foot in diameter and 18 inches tall. They kept us in basil heaven until our first light frost — causing most basils, which are Mediterranean in nature and lineage, to blacken and collapse.
Turning to the ornamental garden, if you want to be a specialty gardener and concentrate on one particular plant or group, or even if you want a broad range of plants in your landscape, you’re going to have to buy many of these plants on the internet, not your local garden center — sorry.
Garden centers, especially our local nurseries and greenhouses, do have their specialties and they can get you large and often unusual plants. But if you want a peony garden, a rose garden, an orchard, a collection of dwarf conifers, or choices among 50 heucheras or echinacea, or even if you simply want some old-fashioned geraniums for your planter boxes, they’ll arrive by FedEx or UPS because you ordered them.
That said, choose your mail-order nurseries well. In past years, I’ve reviewed most of what I consider to be the best and I’ve certainly mentioned the worst . When in doubt, ask friends about their experiences, or visit davesgarden.com and do some research on plants, online and catalogue nurseries. I’ve been impressed by branded shrubs and perennials from Proven Winners.
Now, get ready to be shocked: Once upon a time, mail-order nurseries were bargains. With shipping and packing charges, this generally isn’t the case anymore. Always keep in mind, though, that choice and variety are the key here. Take a perennial grower like Edelweiss Perennials. While they are far away and won’t ship material in one-gallon pots, no perennial grower has a plant list as extensive as they do.
When ordering online, you usually have a choice of when you want your plants delivered, or you can check the box where the nursery makes that choice for you. Their decisions are based on both zip code and hardiness zones. They also want to get the plants out the door as quickly as possible. So, if you feel comfortable, you set the delivery date. Ask for Monday shipping and, this way, even nurseries in North Carolina, like Plant Delights, and California or Washington can get you your plants by the end of the week. Plants should never sit in trucks or freight trains over a weekend.
When putting your order together, also keep in mind that shipping will add as much as 30 percent to your bill — and when you contemplate the price, keep reminding yourself, “But I can’t get it anywhere else!”
These days, plants that come via FedEx or UPS are well boxed and protected. Gone are the days of foam packing peanuts that blew away with the slightest breeze, all replaced by paper products that are recyclable. When the plants arrive, unbox them quickly and keep them out of the sun for a few days, making sure they are well watered. Never plant them the day they arrive, unless they are bare root plants, like roses or fruit trees. In that case, just follow the directions that come with them. Make sure the plants you receive are the plants you ordered. Mistakes seem to be more common recently.
Lastly, don’t be suckered into buying a plant because the advertising says it’s “new.” That rarely means that it’s better. “New” is one of the worst misnomers in horticulture. If it’s truly a great plant, it will be around for a while. Let everyone else test it first.
Next week, on to the business of getting things going from seeds. Keep growing.
One fine body…