In recent years, many of the garden centers in my area have started to offer their retail clients rooted cuttings of annuals (so-called “plugs”) in early spring. It’s an interesting way of getting those expensive cutting-produced annuals (vegetative annuals) at a much lower price.
What are Plugs?
The plugs I’m talking about are plants produced from cuttings by specialized nurseries. They’re sold in cell plug trays and shipped to garden centers for finishing. Normally the latter have a team of workers out back who pot up the plugs into 4-inch (10 cm) pots. They’re then grown on in for a few weeks or months and sold to you at planting time at prime prices.
In this case, though, the merchant puts a few dozen trays out front in the retail section of the nursery in early spring (March and April in my area) and offers them for sale to home gardeners at considerable savings. The same plants I’d normally pay $3.50 to $4.99 apiece in 4-inch pots in late May go for $1.59 to $1.79, depending on the store, when sold as plugs. Plus there are additional discounts if you buy 10 or more. This is less than half the usual price!
What is available? These are all “vegetative annuals”, ones that, either because they don’t come true to type from seed or are too slow to grow from seed, are propagated by cuttings, the kind of plant you have to buy in individual pots rather than in flats in the spring. In this group, you’ll find coleus, tuberous begonias, pelargoniums, fuchsias, vegetative petunias, heliotropes, calibrachoas, bacopas, etc. In some garden centers, there are even a few culinary herbs.
What You See in the Store
In participating stores, you see stands of plug trays filled with rooted cuttings. Each cutting is growing a compact “plug” of potting soil, rock wool or peat. Just gently pull on the cutting to extract it from its cell tray. You’ll find yourself holding a tiny but well-rooted plant with visible roots just waiting to be potted up. When you’ve made your choice, place the cutting in the bag provided. Usually there are assorted labels: you take one per plant to identify it. If you can’t find a label, write the name of the variety on the bag. Then pay for your plants!
You’ll want to pot up your plugs pretty quickly, within 24 hours of purchase. Pot them up into 4-inch (10-cm) pots (5-inch/12-cm pots for tuberous begonias), using potting soil or container plant soil, then water well and place them in a sunny window or under lights. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they grow! When the time comes to plant them outside, your plants will probably look even better than the same plants sold in nurseries because you won’t have packed yours together as tightly as most nurseries do. Given adequate space, they fill out very nicely.
Where are Annual Plugs Available Locally?
I’d be interested in hearing if plugs of annuals is widely available in retail stores or if it is strictly a local phenomenon. I don’t seem to be hearing anything about plugs being sold in retail stores elsewhere, but here in Quebec, all the larger garden centers offer them.
If it isn’t being done locally, why not suggest it to your local garden center? There certainly would be at least a niche market for serious home gardeners who’d actually enjoy potting up their own annuals… at considerable savings, at that. And the garden center could even use them to attract gardeners into their stores extra early in the spring where they might well make other purchases.
Or Buy Them by Mail Order
A few companies do sell plugs by mail order. Richters Herbs has been doing this for years. I once bought an entire plug tray of 120 rooted thyme cuttings at prices I would never have been able to beat locally. They sell mostly herb plugs, but also a limited choice of vegetables. For more info, turn to pages 88 and 89 of their on-line or printed catalogs. Richters ships to both Canada and the US.
Veseys is another company that ships to both the US and Canada. They offer a smaller choice of plants, but do include a few popular vegetative annuals (bacopas, calibracohoas, begonias, etc.) as well as herbs and vegetables.
It’s kinda fun growing plants on from plugs: try it and you’ll see!