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Size of plants

Posted by ruthy1 Zone 5 (My Page) on
Mon, Aug 23, 10 at 20:32

Do you buy the smaller size plants when planting? We are getting some beds ready for planting this fall. My husband thinks we should buy the medium to larger size plants. I think by getting them into the ground this fall, we are getting an extra growing season into them & could mostly buy the smaller size plants - a mix of shrubs & perennials. I'm looking at the total amount of money that we will need to spend to properly landscape this place & could save almost half on the cost the price of the large plants. I also thought the smaller plants would establish & take root better than the larger plants. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts? Would it take more than 2 years for the smaller plants to catch up?


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RE: Size of plants

  • Posted by laag z6CapeCod (My Page) on
    Mon, Aug 23, 10 at 22:29

You are not getting anything extra in size by planting the same size plant in the fall over next spring. You are getting more risk of winter damage than if you planted the same size early in the spring.

It is all trade offs. Bigger gets you closer to a mature landscape sooner. Smaller saves you money and tends to have less winter desication when planted late in the year.

An overlooked aspect of a landscape is the length of life of that particular landscape. Typically it is 10-15 years, but people and articles like to pretend that it is for the life expectancy of the plants within it. This is followed by the premise that plants should be spaced for their full mature size. Then they add the second premise that is very suspect in my opinion. That is to use small plants so that the landscape can grow into its design. When you put the two together, you wind up with huge planting beds with little plants spread far apart.

As time goes by, the plant species grow at different rates which results in the timing of that peak landscape design getting thrown out of whack. Add to that the likelihood of each of the same species growing at the same rate and holding even form until that peak landscape design is reached. Typically, what happens is that you start out with undersized plants in open beds and watch as parts of it grow faster than others and you never fulfill the intent of the design. You wait five years to get there and fing that half of it is grown before the other half has caught up. You wath the next five years as half of the plants become overgrown or on the decline while the other half is getting to where you wanted it.

Ten years after planting, you never got the intent of your landscape design. Meanwhile your neighbor had ten years of a nice landscape and some maintenance to keep it and is now ripping it out to have another go of it. You'll either be joining him of messing around trying to get your money's worth out of what you have.

The advantage of starting big is that at least you'll be guaranteed to have some portion of time when your landscape is what you hoped it would be.

Even if your landscape does grow into its space nicely, you lose three years waiting for it and you are still subject to the same mainteance that the instant landscape got three years ago. It won't stop just because you started with small plants. The difference isthat you had to wait three years to hope it would get there.

Does that make sense?

BUT, if starting with small plants makes your landscape affordable and the alternative is not, that is the best way to make it a reality. That makes sense, too.


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RE: Size of plants

Does "getting some beds ready" include proper soil preparation for the plants you intend to grow? Healthy plants, soil preparation, appropriate planting techniques, watering, mulching etc. often matter more than the original size of the plants.

Many deciduous shrubs and perennials grow quickly. In my heavy clay soil, I have found that smaller plants seem to establish and grow better than larger sizes (2 gallon shrubs, perennials as small as quart sizes). Although remembering to space for mature size is even harder with smaller plants....

Many evergreens are slower growing and thus more expensive than deciduous plants of the same pot size.

Your plants may not grow above ground this fall but will continue to establish their roots after frost, as long as the soil is warm and they are properly watered. 6-8 weeks will give you a great head start compared to waiting until spring.

Perhaps you could list some specific plants for feedback on growth rates. In general, I believe most healthy perennials will catch up in 2 years....so look at your proportion of shrubs vs perennials to help determine the best use of your budget dollars.


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RE: Size of plants

My college of hard knocks lesson here says that Laag's advice is dead-on, as usual. I wish I understood this in the past, but then I also didn't have the experience to comprehend thinking much beyond the empty soil-bed.

My landscape is now a bit of a mish-mash of old and younger plants, which needs to be re-designed around my design goals.


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RE: Size of plants

I tend to buy average sized plants - neither very big ones or very small ones - for the most part. Shrubs and trees tend to establish best for me that way. Perennials are more flexible, but I find generally that buying large sized ones is no advantage at all and often they don't establish well - but, depending on the type of plant, it is sometimes cheaper to buy a large pot and split the plant into smaller pieces.

I think an important part of the decision around size is knowing your 'style' re whether you have a fixed image of what you want to achieve and are dissatisfied with the years of the maturiting process when the garden does not match the desired state; or whether you enjoy the process of watching and managing the garden components moving through stages of maturity. If you prefer the former, choose larger plants but, if you are (like me) someone who enjoys the journey as much as the destination, buy the sizes that make sense/are cost-efficient for you and manage the garden to provide pleasure at its various stages of maturity. Frankly, since the garden is a living thing that will never stand still at a desired state - the destination is a moving target, I think it's better to relax and enjoy the journey. But, unless you really enjoy gardening, that would probably not be the right choice.


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RE: Size of plants

I have done some of each and "it depends" , or may, on what area you are doing, and on perennials vs. shrubs, whether one vendor happens to have a good deal on a particular size. , and whether something is just too gosh-darn expensive in the 3-gal size. I have also used those issues to help decide what plants to use--when trying to budget and have a landscape in the reasonable future, then I might not use a tiny version of an exotic or expensive shrub, but walk through various nurseries to see what gives a good "look" at a good price and size.

Sometimes the issues is not "the biggest" but the biggest-enough--kind of a breakpoint. Some vendors have big sizes but not well-maintaine; this may not be a problem for a professional who has connections with good growers, but if you are doing some big-box buying you have to watch even the small sizes which may be poor quality, or here, established nurseries will have larger specimens that are all pot-bound.

Also, for both of those items, remember to consider whether, if you buy smaller, you may tend to space them closer (no matter what you try to plan on for mature size, it is natural tendency to use more of smaller items), and so may not come out as much ahead.

Another way to look at in can be this: if you had a choice of tackling a smaller area and using good-sized items that look good right away, rather than in 5 years, vs. putting in a giant sweeping area filled with little plants (I realize there are issues of soil prep and basic work like edging or whatnot that might lead you to prepare the largest area intended), option one could well give you a much higher-impact landscaping improvement. That may depend on "taste"--meaning, "see my great new mulch bed" is not what I consider an improvement, in most cases.

And so as not to offend, the great new mulch bed that is actually filled with little perennials that the gardener wants to coax along and wait to grow, because the gardener has time and patience, and is keeping the cost down, is totally fine--it just won't look like much for a few years and so you want to know, what is it that you expect and need from your investment? Are you going to be annoyed walking by your new landscaping and seeing things look tiny and timid? Or do you love to watch things develop over time and feel better making the smallest investment?

Some perennials grow pretty fast-- for some, a quart size is a good size that expands a lot in one year , so you may not gain much from gallon size if that plant is considerably more expensive. I think this is especially true for sun perennials (well-watered). I had Walker's Low catmint that went from 6" to 3 feet in one year, so large specimens would have been a total waste. But for shrubs, I agree with laag--if you are doing some of your main-impact landscaping, I would not use little one-gallon shrubbies and especially not for high-visibility areas.

Another thing you can do if you have the space and are planning way ahead, is to put some small perennials in another area, a side yard or holding bed and "grow up" your own.


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RE: Size of plants

I appreciate all of your responses & you all gave me much to think about. Sometimes I'm too much a cheapskate & don't want to fork out big bucks if I can get away with it.

We are remodeling a place & it's a blank canvas on the outside at this point. We are not living there yet, but hope to move in next year sometime. Hubby is seeding the grass right now & is marking the flower beds.

I thought I would get a head start & plant at least some of the beds around the house this fall. A friend of mine designed our flower beds & gave us suggestions of things to plant. It's a very nice mix of perennials & shrubs. Things like tree peonys, fringe tree, autumn brilliance serviceberry, Black lace elderberry, green velvet boxwood, endless summer hydrangea, holly bushes, blue star junipers, crabapples - pink princess or lollipop, Dwf butterfly bush, grapeleaf anemone golden moneywort, moonbeam coreopsis, Bird's nest spruce, Korean spice or Juddii viburnum, Gold heart bleeding heart, wine & roses weigela, garden plox, bell flowers, etc. LOL! And the list goes on & on! And that's only the beds around the house. There are more beds down by the drive & also above and around a retaining wall.
I think we have good soil & bought some Root Master B-1 to use while planting.

I started pricing & that's when I got the bright idea of buying small, so I can buy more! But I think I will take your advice & buy bigger on the shrubs & trees. I have friends that I'm sure I can get some starts on the perennials. I have not been found pictures of a fringe tree or tree peony? Do any of you have those?


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RE: Size of plants

It depends on where you live as to whether fall or spring planting is better. In 2 of the places I lived, the weight goes to fall, hands down.

You want to consider several things in sizing plants. How fast do they grow? What can you afford? How important are they to the "look" of the landscape?

I put my money on plants that are the most important, visually, and the slowest growing. Plants that are quicker growing or less important I plant smaller. I can fill in with annuals or cheap perennials (cheap=free from divisions) and then rip them out or move them later when things start filling in. Don't plant for 10 years in the future. Plant for today AND 10 years int he future.

I always go small with perennials. If I can afford it now, small, or in 2 years, big, and in the meantime can't plant anything else....I go small and get to enjoy it for 2 more years. It's only logical!

Slow-growing evergreens I like to get big, when I can.


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RE: Size of plants

It really depends on what species you are planting. Give us a clue!

I disagree with Laag ... and the advice from the Phoenix Desert Botanic Garden is also to buy small, plant carefully, let them grow into their surroundings.

A problem with medium and large nursery stock is that they are often what didn't sell the previous year, potted up into the next-larger size. That means they have a higher chance of being root-bound and suffer transplanting shock.

Unless it is a 'specimen tree' where you want instant WOW factor and can afford the $$$$ for a big boxed tree professionally planted, I recommend 5 (if you can find them) or 15-gallon trees, and 1 or 5-gallon containers for shrubs. By the third year there is seldom a size difference.

If they are slow-growing species, plant more of them and remove certain ones when they start to touch each other. Or fill in with annuals and short-lived perennials.


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RE: Size of plants

  • Posted by bboy USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA (My Page) on
    Thu, Aug 26, 10 at 11:55

Retail outlets here don't do much, if any potting on. But this means larger plants will have usually come from the grower in that state. And they have usually come from the grower already in a rootbound condition, rather than developing that at the garden center. I loosen and inspect root masses when planing woody stock, make corrections needed at that time. If there is a tight, unfixable knot near the base of the stem I pass such specimens by when I can tell it is there at the store (I seldom buy grafted conifers offered here as these are usually terrible, as are most camellia plants presented in this market). If I am discovering this at planting I throw the plant away, except where it might be grown long enough to raise better ones from cuttings first.

Zone 6 and warmer fall is by far the preferred time to plant hardy stock. In Zone 5 you are planting in spring because you are forced to by the cold winters, otherwise spring planting stinks in multiple ways.

Here spring planting dominates because that is when the public gets in the mood, and when many kinds of hardy plants flower, can be bought in bloom.


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RE: Size of plants

You've gotten a lot of good advice, but I'm throwing in my 2 cents anyways ...

Year One:


  • Plant medium sized versions of woody plants (shrubs & trees), and spend good money on those.
  • Wait for the perennials and identify which ones you can grow from seed. Start those in the house in February or so, and have little baby plants to put in a little baby "starter" bed in the spring.
  • Mulch the areas around your woody plants & spend a few bucks on annuals to keep it from looking totally empty

    Year Two:

  • Transplant the perennials that look decent into their eventual homes in the flower beds.
  • Buy more annuals (but less than last year) to fill in the beds as needed.
  • Buy some perennials that fit the plan & are reasonably priced.
  • Haunt local plant sales for good deals (especially if your area has a few garden clubs where members sell their divisions, that's a goldmine of plants for little money)

    Year Three:

  • Transplant any remaining perennials from the baby bed into their real locations.
  • Don't buy any annuals this year, but finish out the beds with perennials found at reasonable prices.

    Year Four:
    Enjoy the garden! It typically takes 4 years to get a decent landscape established anyways, you might was well make it easier on your wallet & your body by spreading the purchases & work out among those 4 years :)


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    RE: Size of plants

    PAm, are you really me? ;-)

    That's what I'm doing in my front garden, almost exactly. Except I'm starting with the planting now (for the bushes) so they have time to settle and become accustomed to their new home before summer. (It's not super-important here, really. Not like in that high desert or zone 8+. But I've had good luck with fall planting.)


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    RE: Size of plants/shrubs

    Pam that's a very good plan - I really like it! Hubby might not. He wants to plant a bed all at one time. I guess it works better for spacing everything. Not sure it's going to happen that way. I will be getting starts for a lot of perennials from friends. Some of them divide in the spring - not fall. I've also had good luck with fall planting for the most part. Lost a few things over winter, but not much. I will have to be on the lookout for root bound bushes/shrubs. Thanks for the reminder lazygardents. Thanks to all for your thoughts!


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    RE: Size of plants

    Smaller tree transplants establish quicker than larger ones and thanks to this can catch up.

    Now if your design needs a 12 foot tall "xxx" acer palmaturm and it grows 6 inches per year you better fork out the big bucks for a large transplant and get a warranty on it.

    If your design won't look right until your metasequoia or other fast growing tree is 12 foot tall then just spend $25 on a mail order bare rooter and let it grow for a year or two. No need to fool with potted root bound, transplant shock having B&B (butchered & burlaped) crud.


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    RE: Size of plants

    Hi Reyesuela,

    I might be you ... but I might also be your evil twin ;)

    I've sort of done it this way every time I made a garden b/c I could never bear to spend that much money in one fell swoop. Buying all the woody plants, perennials, and mulch at once would convince me to not garden at all & just live with plain grass. Staggering it makes it seem less painful to the wallet & lets me still have fun :)


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    RE: Size of plants

    > I guess it works better for spacing everything.

    Nah. Everything will grow even if you buy big stuff. And it WON'T grow to the sizes on the labels, either. Consider those to be rough guesses, only.

    >I could never bear to spend that much money in one fell swoop.

    I simply can't afford it. I'm planting the driveway beds now (1300 sqft) and the front bed (1150 sq ft) this year. That's a LOT of space to cover!!!!!


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