Plant prices have risen much faster than this summer’s dahlias. On my shopping spree, 10 percent inflation is wishful thinking. 25 percent are closer to the mark.
There are reasons. Lockdown brought millions of new gardeners online looking for plants to grow. They had little idea of previous prices and it seemed mean to deny the nurseries a price increase when they were doing everything in their power to stay open during such difficult times. Those who have had to close must also rebuild their business.
Those out on my usual shopping spree have pushed prices up not only to match what the lockdown has proven possible, but to cover the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, transport and labour. The cost of well-grown bedding plants next spring will come as a shock. They must be grown in heated greenhouses. Last winter hardly needed heating but this year it may not be so friendly.
Here is my 50 year baseline. When the FT last planted a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, winning gold for the third straight year in 1973, I had to oversee the herbaceous plants. In 9cm pots they cost 90p for 10 wholesale from major suppliers. Some numbers stick in your head, not always helpful. If you’ve ever bought a 9cm plant, you can recall that even back then, retail plant prices in garden centers were at least three times as much. In 1973, 35p per border plant was a rule of thumb for retail, with the newly introduced Value Added Tax on top of that, then at 10 per cent.
Much larger plants are in fashion in 2022, especially since gardeners want quick results. Most people like plants in two or three liter pots. Sometimes plants of this size have just been transplanted into a larger pot and have yet to take root.
Otherwise, they have an advantage: They can be potted, divided into three or more parts and propagated in smaller pots with your garden’s soil, ready to go into a bed after two months of growth.
At £9.99 a three liter plant growing into three one liter plants isn’t a bad buy. Apply my old baseline: what cost 35p in 1973 will cost you £3.33 in 2022. Don’t dream of comparing that increase to house prices then and now.
We all hate paying more than we did before lockdown. I’ve reduced my order of bedding plants to one or two at a time as I anticipate propagating more from these parents. One way is to share them. Another option is to take cuttings after delivery. You are so funny. The success rate is almost never 100 percent, sometimes as low as 10 percent, but the process is true gardening.
Preparation is key. I go out and choose a healthy mother plant and water it the night before removing cuttings from it. In this dry summer, pre-watering is essential, as is morning pruning, as the plants still have some moisture from the previous evening’s watering. Cuttings taken on a hot summer day in the late afternoon usually root less well.
To take cuttings, cut off a few short, unflowered shoots from the mother plant and remove them where they connect to a main shoot if the spacing is short. Otherwise, bring them up to a firm joint on their own stem, usually under a pair of leaves. Cuttings should be only a few inches long and yellowed leaves should be cut off. You need to leave about a third of the length of the cutting with a free length of the stem, the part you fix in root compost.
Snip off the leaves with sharp scissors, not heavy pruning shears, which will crush the soft stem. Next, I place the cuttings in a clear plastic bag and tie a knot to make them airtight. The bag will keep the cuttings fresh and secure and should be kept in the shade until the cuttings are opened and planted. If you leave the bag in the sun, especially in fresh weather, the cuttings will suffer. If they have to wait a while, put a few drops of water in the bag, reseal and allow to absorb and solidify again.
I use square plastic pots up to 3 inches in diameter for cuttings housing. If you cover them, square pots fit better under plastic hats or bags than round ones. For root compost I use John Innes seed compost by J Arthur Bower at about £9.99 per 25 liter sack and I mix it with about a third its mass of perlite.
I disagree with online guides that tell you to water your cuttings compost after you have firmly planted the cuttings in it. If you do this you will either loosen the cuttings or drown them. Perlite needs to be soaked before mixing it into the soil for each pot. Soak the compost too, let the two dry slightly for about an hour, and then mix them in proportion. Then and only then fill the pots.
For each cutting, make a hole near the side of the pot where drainage is usually better: I use a defunct fat old ballpoint pen for this purpose. I don’t bother with hormone root powder on soft stemmed cuttings. Insert the cutting so its underside touches the bottom of the hole, and then hold it there and press the soil around it with the fingers of your other hand to keep the cutting secure. Test by trying to pull it out by its handle: it shouldn’t budge. Solid planting is essential.
Place several of the pots side by side on a seed tray and then, without leaving it on top of the leaves, attach a large clear plastic bag over it. Alternatively, use clear plastic bottles that used to hold water or soft drinks: cut out the bottom and then fit them over one or two of the pots at a time. They’ll rarely need to water again: in bags or bottles, place the pot in a light, airy shade, indoors or out, and check to make sure the pots aren’t drying out every four days or so.
After about four weeks, many cuttings should show signs of new growth, an indication that they are taking root. Cut off the top of the bag, wait a few days, and then fill in each cutout with as much soil as you can move. Transplant them into individual pots.
Here are five pruning candidates for beginners: fuchsias, semi-hard sage, thyme, penstemon, and lavender. This weekend is still a good time to prune and pot them: if you can’t buy compost and perlite, try rooting the first four of my five in a glass of cold water, up to half the length of their stems. Most of them will send out roots without soil.
Are cuttings cheaper, you might ask, even if you don’t factor in your own time and labor? Probably not at first given the cost of potting soil, but cost is only part of the equation.
Other parts are fun and contentment. A home-grown and grown carnation has a value that no store-bought one can match.
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