Tomatoes in January

They seem to show up in the stores earlier and earlier each year. I’m not talking about Christmas decorations before Halloween. (Remember when the Christmas season started after Thanksgiving?) What is showing up earlier are plants for the garden. In what is possibly a new record, a local garden center was selling tomato plants and marigolds on January 31, a full two months before last frost for this area.

Superbowl Sunday. With temperatures hovering around 40E and a steady rain falling, the experienced gardener was watching the game, or more likely, thumbing through seed catalogs. January is the time for starting seeds of cold hardy plants to be set out later, or deciding what new perennials to try this year. January is too early for setting out tender plants. Trying to coax them along indoors until spring is not much fun either. I asked the manager why these plants were for sale so early. He said that customers wanted them, other stores had them, so they had to be available or sales would be lost.

Part of my job in extension is to work with the home gardener, both experienced and otherwise. It is the otherwise I worry about. They see marigolds in full bloom in a garden center and think that if the plants are for sale, it must be all right to set them out, even though the calendar says it is still winter. The stores wouldn’t sell them now if they were doomed to failure, would they? Have I got news for you.

Most nurseries and garden centers are not out to deliberately cheat their customers. Those tactics would eventually put them out of business. But managers and buyers are not always horticulturists and are simply supplying a product the consumer wants. Other garden centers and nurseries then feel pressured to supply the same products, even though the time may not be right.

Talking with gardeners, the same complaints seem to surface on a regular basis. Other than supplying plants at the wrong time, one complaint that comes up regularly is stocking perennials, shrubs and trees not hardy for the area. Macon is in USDA hardiness zone 8. Many times plants are sold as perennial although they may only be hardy to zone 9. Technically the plant may be a perennial, but here it is only an annual.

Another aggravation many gardeners have is self-seeding annuals marketed as perennials. Some annuals produce large amounts of seed, so much so that the plant reseeds itself and emerges in the garden the following year. But if a gardener uses mulch heavily, the plant is less likely to reseed itself. If a plant is an annual, it should be sold as such.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear about is inadequate labeling of the plants. I actually saw a label last year that said "Perennial, Sun or Shade, Height- Varies, Flower Color- Varies, Flower Time- Varies". Was the label worth the price of the ink to print it? Labels should list the common and scientific name of the plant. They should also include important care information. A picture of the plant in flower, either on the label or the display would also be helpful. Also, clearly posting the price is a must.

The inexperienced gardener usually has many questions when they go plant shopping. There is not always someone around to answer those questions. These gardeners may become frustrated and take their business elsewhere, or purchase plants not suited for their situation. Some garden centers make an effort to educate their customers, whether by having Master Gardeners or other knowledgeable people answer customers’ questions, or supplying printed literature. They recognize that satisfied customers are likely to be repeat customers.

Poor plant quality can be a problem, especially at discount stores and home improvement stores. All too often, someone with no plant experience is told to take care of the plants. Some don’t get watered, others get too much water. I visited a home improvement store a couple years ago just as a load of perennials was delivered. The plants were stacked on pallets and wrapped in plastic to aid shipping. They were taken off the truck and set on the parking lot, presumably to be displayed for sale. After doing my other shopping, I stopped back by the garden center to see if any unusual perennials were delivered. They were still in the parking lot, wrapped in plastic. The temperature was in the 80's, and the plants under the plastic were well over 100o. I decided not to purchase any plants that day.

When the fall season rolls around, many gardeners feel ignored by the garden centers. Fall is an optimum time for planting, but often all that can be purchased are the tired old perennials that have been on the shelf all summer. Fresh plants (other than mums) produced for fall sales would find many willing buyers.

The best customer is an educated one. Before shopping for plants, know what you are looking for. Rely on books and advice from people you trust instead of the guy on the end of the hose in the nursery. Someone caring for the plants in a garden center is not necessarily an expert. Most important, if you are not satisfied with the product or service you receive, complain to the management. If enough people do, perhaps tomato plants will no longer be available on Superbowl Sunday.