Garden plants may be bought at many stages in their life cycle, from seed to flowering plant. Certain plants are so commonly bought in a certain form that it’s easy to forget that they are available in other forms. For example, you can buy a shade tree as a seed for only pennies. Here are some of the forms in which plants are available and the reasons why they are purchased at that size.
Almost all plants are available as seeds. Annual flowers and vegetables are usually sold this way, but trees, shrubs, houseplants, and bulbs are also available as seeds. Because seeds are lightweight, easy to handle, and easy to store, this is the least expensive way to buy plants.
Another advantage to buying seeds is that more plants are available in this form than in any other. Some seed houses offer thousands of plants for sale, some very rare and not available in any other form.
The difficulty with starting plants as seeds is that all seeds are not germinated the same way. Some require a stringent set of conditions before they will germinate, such as alternating periods of wet and dry, or warm and cold.
The group called “bulbs” includes several different underground storage organs: bulbs, rhizomes, tuber, corms, and others, that have certain traits in common. All are dormant resting structures that contain enough energy to make rapid plant growth when conditions are favorable. Bulbs have many of the advantages of seeds—they are compact, easy to store, and relatively inexpensive. However, they are easier to start than many seeds. If dropped in a hole at the right time of year, they will almost surely make a flower.
Some deciduous trees and shrubs are dug up in the fall, after they have dropped their leaves, and sold with no soil on their roots. Fruit trees and roses are commonly sold this way in garden centers, stored with their roots in damp sawdust. So are many ornamental trees and shrubs.
Bare-root plants are normally less expensive than the same plant would be in a container. They are seasonal, however, and can only be offered while the weather is cool enough to keep them dormant. Once the weather becomes warm enough, they begin growing, and must be planted immediately.
Evergreen trees and shrubs, and other plants that don’t take kindly to having their roots bared, are often dug in the field with a ball of soil (balled), which is wrapped and tied in burlap to support it (burlapped). Plants are usually lifted from the field during their dormant season. Unlike bare-root trees, they can be kept in a nursery after growth begins, but they are not as easy to care for as container plants, and can not be left indefinitely.
This is the simplest, most available, and most expensive way to buy plants. Plants in containers are available all during the growing season, and almost all plants are available in that form. Sizes range from cell-packs with only a couple of tablespoons of soil to trees so large they must be placed in the ground with a crane.
The advantage of buying plants in containers is that you know exactly what you are getting. If you buy the plant in bloom, you know the exact flower color, without relying on a description or photograph. Container plants also give instant gratification. As soon as you plant it, it looks like a plant; you don’t need to wait for it to grow or leaf out.
The disadvantages are their higher cost and the fact that you’re limited to plants available at local nurseries.