Take advantage of seasonal sales, and save yourself some green.
Steve Bender

I don’t know about you, but these days I’m pinching pennies so hard I’m leaving fingerprints. I’ve cut back on everything except water, oxygen, and plants―you know, the essentials. And while the first two aren’t getting cheaper, the last one is. Now is a great time to save money on outdoor plants.

That’s because many garden centers and nurseries still have plants left over from last summer and fall. Like car dealers, they need to get rid of the old to make way for the new. The best way to do this is to hold a big winter sale. Play your cards right, and you could save anywhere from 20% to 50%.

Planting in Winter
Here’s something to make you feel even better. Unless you live in an area where the ground freezes, winter is a good time to plant. Plant tops may be dormant, but root systems are not. Planting now gives shrubs, trees, vines, and perennials a head start on spring. They’ll put their energy into making roots instead of splitting it among roots, leaves, stems, and flowers.

Can’t plant now? You can still buy plants on sale. Protect them from the weather by placing them pot-to-pot inside a cold frame. Or place them pot-to-pot up against an outside wall, and lightly cover them with a few inches of dry leaves or straw until the soil is ready for planting.

Dead or Alive?
Now for the $64 question (that’s all I can afford). How can you tell if a dormant plant is alive? After all, some plants, especially perennials and ornamental grasses, will look like little more than pots of roots. Here are some tips. If the plant is evergreen, check the leaves and stems to make sure they’re supple and healthy, not brittle, burned, or brown.

Use your fingernail to lightly scratch the bark of a woody plant. You should see green just under the outer bark. If you see brown, put it down.

For a plant with no topgrowth, slip the root-ball out of the pot and check the roots. Healthy roots appear firm and are generally whitish, light brown, or tan. Dark brown, black, rotting, withered, moldy, or crumbly roots are bad signs.

Okay, you’ve bought your plant at a big discount (most likely with no guarantee). You won’t save any money if it croaks. These pointers should improve your odds. Read and follow the growing instructions on the tag. No tag? Ask at the nursery for advice or―better yet―refer to your prized copy of The Southern Living Garden Book. Dig a hole as deep as the root-ball and three times as wide. If the roots have formed a hard ball, use a pencil or screwdriver to gently loosen and spread them before planting. Plant so that the top of the root-ball is slightly above the soil surface.

Don’t fertilize a dormant plant. You might wake it up too early.