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I walked through a Big Box retailer this morning. The Big Box retailer in question will remain nameless. It will remain nameless due to the fact that I am about to blast it for underhanded retail tricks worthy of a nineteenth century elixir salesman.

All I needed was a cheap, lightweight arbor, a couple bags of perlite and a few six-packs of pansies. Imagine my surprise to find that environmentally appropriate (read: frost tolerant) annuals and perennials were not the only beauties on display. In fact, I don’t think there could have been more color had I come to this store on a sunny May afternoon.

Now why do I take umbrage with this state of affairs you ask? It’s been a long winter. Why am I not charmed by the appealing impatiens, sweet petunias, and variety upon variety of tomato plants lined neatly in rows? Let me tell you why dear reader. I am a gardener. I know when these plants can safely go in the garden – and last time I checked, I wasn’t living on the Gulf Coast.

To your average Joe & Joanne Innocent walking through this particular store on a simple quest for a packet of Bloomsdale Longstanding, Summer has suddenly come in all her eye-popping majesty. Joe grabs six one-gallon teasers, Joanne snatches four flats of six-pack tempters and, faced with strong, sixinch tomato plants fresh from the hothouse, makes the instant decision to give up on the straggly seedlings currently sitting on her washing machine at home. What they both don’t realize is that three-quarters of the plants they have bought in a horticultural retail frenzy are going to die.

frostAs I write these words, our outside temperature tonight is going to be 29 degrees; tomorrow, probably 27; the night after that, 26. Friends, these are not temperatures in which Impatiens thrive. Nor petunias. Nor in fact tomato plants – no matter how early your girl is. But the smart little marketer in charge of Mid-Atlantic regional sales is not going to tell you this. He is instead going to rely on a retail campaign of Shock and Awe to coax those reluctant dollars out of winter-frozen wallets; and he won’t feel any shame about it either.

I used to be one of the uninitiated. I used to fill my cart with blooming dianthus and flowering peppers and oooh-I’ve-never-seen-that-variety tomatoes, and all things tender and succulent – excited by afternoon temperatures in the low 60’s and not really paying attention in the evening (being fast asleep and twenty at the time).

But that was then.

Now, many years later, having learned my lesson in the frost-blackened leaves of rash purchases, I am angry for those who haven’t, and who will be suckered into buying these plants – and losing these plants – far, far too early in the season.

Sure we’ve seen a lot of warm days. Days that make you break out the shorts and the flip-flops and move mulch by the trailer load onto your vegetable beds (hopefully not while you’re wearing the flip-flops). We’ve sat at baseball practices for our children and leaned our faces back and felt the late afternoon sun on our vampire cheeks. We’ve even had a drink or two out on the deck, and maybe one on the patio with friends – and then we’ve gone inside to a cozy little Prime-Time line-up when the sun goes down.

hailSlowly however, those overnight temperatures are going to climb above the freezing mark (somewhere around the end of April for my 6b garden), and then, more and more of those plants I saw this morning will actually have a decent chance of seeing their first birthdays- especially if you’ve been kind enough to protect them from the weather with everything from row covers to upturned milk jugs.

But until that time, grab a few six packs of pansies, perhaps an ornamental kale or two and focus your attention on preparation, dormant shrub planting & the annual dance of Perennial Musical Chairs. And when you navigate your next retail obstacle course outside the safety zone of a reliable nursery, treat those blooming beauties like an Atkins enthusiast treats a loaf of crusty ciabatta.

Unless of course you have a greenhouse, in which case your peppers started producing last month and nobody, including me, wants to talk to you.