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Bringing home the green

In our eagerness for the season, we gardeners often purchase plants before it's time to put them outside. Flower shows and garden centers are tempting you with irresistible flowers and foliage, including some unusual specimens or bargains you might not find later.

In order to keep these plants healthy, you need to prepare for their transitions to the "real world" they're going to inhabit.

>Where you live

Remember that you live in Western New York, where the last average frost date is around May 21, and there are often frosts until June 1. While this year could be different because the lake is less frozen, we could still have late, cold storms. So no matter how wildly you celebrate the early bouts of spring fever, and how soon you exult in those summer-like weekends, be assured there will still be shockingly cold episodes. You can tolerate quick changes. You can go inside and put a sweater on; your plants cannot.

>Taking home the hardy ones

There is no reason to hold back on selecting some perennials, shrubs and trees for the garden and landscape right now -- if you have a way to hold them until the soil and weather are right for planting. The main factor affecting planting of dormant plants is the condition of the soil. It must be unfrozen and the soil crumbly, not soggy. Do not plant in wet soil. You can plant dormant plants as early as soil permits, if you can keep up with the watering, and protect them from extreme winds. Mulch them to protect from extreme temperature fluctuation. The same applies to bare-root trees and shrubs; they are ideal for planting early, before the plant breaks dormancy, but the soil has to be ready and you must water.

So, your hardy plant might have to come home with you and wait somewhere for planting weekend. The holding place is not indoors. Your heated house will dry it; the plant will break dormancy too soon for the outdoor conditions it will face when you plant it. The right place is a sheltered location, against a building, away from the wind, in an unheated greenhouse or porch, clustered with other plants that have over-wintered. Don't let them dry out between rains and freezes.

>Babying tender plants

Annuals, tropicals and hanging basket plants are obviously tender plants. (Hardy plants -- perennials, shrubs -- that were kept in a heated greenhouse or forced to leaf out early are tender too. Treat them the same way for now, but transition them gradually to outside during the next weeks.) Cover the tender plants when you leave the show or garden shop. Don't leave them in the car more than 15 minutes. Create a bright, cool place in the house; turn down the heat (over 55 degrees) at night; elevate them above water to increase humidity (not standing in water.) Make a plastic tent; simulate a greenhouse.

Patience is a virtue, and a very difficult one to nurture at this time of year. If your plant-lust overcomes your virtue, at least be sure to do right by the little green beauties that go home with you. It just takes a little planning.

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