Getting to the root of the annual waiting game

My neighbor looked down in dismay at the three-inch French marigold she had recently transplanted. It was a frilly mound of deep green leaves but where there should have been ruffled orange flowers - not even a bud.

"It's not doing anything," she said, "It's just sitting there. Did I do something wrong?"

This was her first spring with a flower garden. Years of struggling for the perfect lawn had convinced her that all plants were delicate and temperamental. When I examined the marigold in question, however, it had that quality of sheer fitness, which repels hungry insects and sends them after easier prey. But it was the same size as when she had transplanted it.

Unbeknownst to my friend, the plant had probably more than doubled in size during the previous week - underground.

All the attention gardeners devote to color schemes, foliage contrasts and textures, and blooming sequence depend on the health of the roots. Although it was not apparent to my neighbor, her young marigold had been busy building feeder roots to anchor its upper body and keep it supplied with water and minerals through the hectic season ahead.

Life in the annual lane

Annuals are plants that germinate, grow, reproduce, and die in one year. This is a full schedule. These breeds mature quickly, begin blooming, and continue to flower profusely until frost shuts them down. All annuals will perform better if given some special support during the time they are building their root structures. Fortunately, several ways exist to ease the transition from the nursery flat to garden.

First, buy compact and balanced seedlings. Look past the flower and study the shape of the entire plant. Pop the plant gently out of its container and examine the root ball. Healthy white roots should lace the surface of the soil, but the soil should not be hidden by a solid sheet of roots, and there shouldn't be a mat of roots under, or growing out of the flat.

Since few gardens have perfect soil, consider purchasing a pelleted time-release fertilizer suitable for annuals. One with a 14-14-14 rating works well. By releasing the nutrients gradually, the pellets supply the root zone for the entire growing season so it's only necessary to feed the plants once.

If you are planting into containers such as window boxes or you live in an arid part of the country, consider adding a water-grabbing granule such as Terra-Sorb or Soil Moist to your potting mix or garden soil. These gravelly particles absorb water and hold it like miniature canteens. The plant can send a root right through the swollen granule and sip the water.

When setting out your seedlings, prepare a batch of liquid fertilizer made especially for transplants. Commercial fertilizers contain vitamin B1, iron, and other trace minerals, all formulated to aid new root growth. After blending the time-release fertilizer pellets into the soil, pour half the recommended amount of transplant fertilizer into the hole. Stick in the plant, and add the remaining mixture.

A pinch to grow on

Next, pinch off any open flowers, or remove the topmost bud. While you lose the immediate display of color, you are ensuring a better blooming season. Also, the top bud produces a hormone called auxin that suppresses the growth of side branches. By removing it, you encourage the seedling to become bushy and rounded, a shape that is not only going to produce more flowers but will also be healthier during the season.

Finally, be patient. As long as the leaves look fresh and firm and the stem is plump and sturdy, don't be concerned when your transplant appears to be just sitting there for as long as two weeks. It is probably growing like mad, laying the groundwork for a bright and fragrant summer show.

*Ann Hollerbach, a long-time gardener, has a PhD in history, specializing in the history of life sciences. She does her sowing and gathering in Franklin, Mass.

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