Hanging With Your Mom

“Whistler’s Mother”

Mothers’ Day is the number one holiday for flower sales, easily beating out Easter and Christmas. For all the millions of cut flower bouquets and arrangements that are purchased, millions more go shopping with their mothers on Mothers’ Day weekend to buy plants. Some are going to buy flats of annuals, perennials or even vegetables, but what nurseries sell more off on that weekend than any other is hanging baskets.

George Sheldrake, owner of Early Bird Farms in Ithaca, New York, said that he sells half of all the baskets he makes for the year on that one weekend in May. In upstate New York, Mothers’ Day is a bit early to put many annuals and vegetable into the ground; there is still a danger of frost. According to Sheldrake, May 15 is the average day for the last frost, meaning that its after that about half of the time. This makes buying a hanging basket a good idea.

“No annuals should go in at Mothers’ Day,” said Sheldrake. “Plants like begonias and impatiens don’t even need frost to be affected. Several nights down in the 40s will stun them and they’ll pout.” These plants, he said, will not grow for a while and will always be behind plants that are put in later.


Sheldrake starts planting his baskets in March. He has 10-, 12- and 14-inch diameters and is able to put more variety into the larger ones. Early Bird sells the 14-inch baskets empty with enough potting soil to supplement a 10-inch basket. “We call it ‘super-sizing,’” Sheldrake joked. “It’s like goldfish. You get a bigger fish in a bigger bowl.”

“A lot of people talk about planting for symmetry, but I don’t go for that,” he said. He combines a variety of leaf textures, flower colors and plant habits to create a full and interesting living arrangement. He includes what he calls the “thriller,” the up-right plant with the striking blooms, the “spiller,” the cascading plant that covers the sides of the pot and hangs below it, and the “filler,” which holds it all together. Sheldrake may include seven or eight varieties in a single “combo” basket.

Hanging baskets are generally filled with annuals because these varieties bloom for months on end as long as they are deadheaded. It must be remembered that potted plants are closed systems and need fertilizing regularly. “It’s better to fertilize than to under-fertilize,” said Sheldrake. “Petunias, in particular, love nitrogen. Pansies and violas prefer a low pH – about 5.8.”

Sheldrake inherited Early Bird Farms from his parents. His father was a Cornell horticulture professor and his mother was active in the running of the business until she passed away in 2002. He grew up on the farm and in the business, and is in the process of expanding it.

Early Bird annuals

One thing that bothers him about the nursery business is the amount of plastic that is used. He has been testing alternatives to plastic for his hanging baskets and other pots. He first tried pots made from rice husks, but rejected them because they looked too much like plastic. He is now trying out pots made from compressed straw held together with a binder and some made from “coco-fiber,” which is made from coconut husks that were once discarded in process of collecting the meat.

Both alternatives are supposed to be biodegradable and also to allow roots to grow through them. So far, Sheldrake has not seen any roots poking out of his experimental pots. He doesn’t like to use peat pots, the traditional alternative to plastic, because they harbor insects, specifically shore flies and fungus gnats.

Mothers’ Day is the third busiest weekend of the year at Early Bird. The busiest weekend is the one before Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend itself is second.

“The worst thing for Mothers’ Day is if it is really hot,” Sheldrake said. “We put out lemonade in that case.” It is generally a fun weekend for the nursery though. “Sometimes people are grumpy when they show up,” he said, “but they are happier when they leave.”


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