Buying Boxed Perennials

The calendar says it’s spring, and who is a gardener to disagree? Walk down the aisle of any Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Walmart, and you’ll find a colorful display of boxed bare root perennials, ready to pop into your warm spring soil. Cannas, lilies, bleeding heart, and clematis. Peonies, six dormant plants. Gladiolus and hostas. Caladium, phlox, and kniphofia. The photos on the packaging are so enticing to our flower-starved souls (especially after experiencing our recent  “bomb cyclone,” a blizzard of apocalyptic proportions, which dumped 4-foot drifts in our yard)!

Gladiolus_DBG-CO_LAH_8837Spring is late this year in our part of the world. A good part of my yard is still frozen, although the warmer weather this week has finally melted most of the snow. I’d love to get out and plant, but another storm is predicted for this weekend. None of these plants should go into the ground now, no matter what the stores offer.

For one, many of these species aren’t frost hardy. Cannas, caladiums, and glads are all tropical plants. If you grow them in our climate, you should expect to dig them up in the fall and store them over the winter. You can replant when danger of frost is past, and that won’t happen here for another month or two! Another option is to start them indoors in containers, and bring them outside when warm weather arrives. Or, you can simply treat them as annuals.

Bleeding Heart_Spanaway-WA_LAH_0077Remember that these “dormant” plants are being stored indoors at room temperature. As a result, even those plants that are hardy here, such as bleeding heart, hosta, and phlox, have now broken their winter dormancy. Soon we’ll see tender shoots sticking out of the packaging. While an established clematis, for example, survives down to USDA zone 4 (-30° F), the one you’re admiring in the store package won’t be nearly that sturdy.

It’s tempting to purchase plants on impulse, but that often backfires. Where will it be planted? Do you have a good spot in mind, or will you “tuck it in somewhere”? The most attractive landscapes have a basic plan to them. Even if you add seasonal plants according to whimsy, your garden needs good “bones” to look its best.

Clematis @SantaFeGreenhouses 2008jun28 LAH 200Many of the plants sold in these displays are not at all suited to Colorado. Even for those that are, you need exactly the right site for them to thrive. For example, clematis are hardy here, but the vines are fairly brittle. To survive our wind storms, they need to be planted in a sheltered location, such as a courtyard. In addition, most growing guides recommend placing them where the roots are shaded and the vine is in full sun. In addition, they need consistently moist soil, which requires more irrigation than I’m willing to provide. I’ve seen gorgeous clematis in some local gardens , but I know that my yard isn’t the place to grow them, no matter how pretty the flowers are.

Kniphofia uvaria - Torch LilyRed Hot Poker (aka Torch Lily, Kniphofia uvaria) is one of my favorite flowers—I’m a sucker for orange flowers that I can combine with purple. However Kniphofia is barely hardy to zone 6 (-10° F)—you have to mulch the crowns—and most winters my 7,100 foot garden gets colder than that. Bleeding hearts fade away after blooming, leaving a hole in your garden for half the summer—and they prefer moist, acidic soil with plenty of organic matter, not what I have to offer. Hostas are hardy enough, but their leaves—the reason we grow them in the first place—are typically ruined by our summer hailstorms.


On the other hand, bare root plants have some advantages. For one, they’re often less expensive than those growing in pots. Years ago, I purchased six peonies for under $15 and them in a large perennial border. Three never grew. The other three did well. It took several years, but they had finally reached blooming size the year we sold that house. If you are willing to wait, these plants can be a bargain.

Buying bare root plants also allows you to see the condition of the roots before you plant. Try to get a glimpse if the box has a cellophane window, or be willing to return the item if the roots are dried and dead. A store display shelf isn’t the ideal place for them to await planting.

Once you open the box, trim off broken or unhealthy roots. An hour’s soak may help revive desiccated roots, if they’re still alive. When you go to plant, spread the roots so that they grow outward. Be sure to plant the crown at the appropriate depth. Too deep and the roots will suffocate. Too shallow and they’ll dry out. Most roots should be just an inch or two underground, and then add several inches of mulch over the soil.


As with any garden purchase, a good deal of discretion is helpful. Do your homework. Does it grow here?  Is this the right plant for your garden? Is it healthy? Don’t be taken in by another pretty face.

Photos, from top: Clematis, peony, phlox, gladiolus, cannas (3), bleeding heart, clematis (with rose), red hot poker, hail-damaged hostas, lily.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s