Plants and seeds have been shipped around the world for more than 500 years.It has always been very easy to ship and distribute seeds, as most store well and they come in these self-contained packages called “seed coats.” Rooted plants and cuttings have been a bit more of a challenge, but the Wardian case—an early type of terrarium-like sealed protective container for plants—addressed that issue in 1829.
Buying plants by mail has been an evolving science, but why do we buy by mail? Well “mail” is now a misnomer because the vast majority of plants are now shipped UPS or FedEx, and many catalogs are online and not in print. But the biggest reason we buy from these nurseries is that purchasing by mail allows the freedom of choosing from thousands of growers.
Not to knock them at all, but even at the best local garden centers you may find 15 varieties of peonies, whereas an online vendor, like Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, offers 145. Locally you may find 10 to 20 varieties of hardy lilies (not daylilies), but B&D Lilies offers more than 100. You might find 200 different tree and shrub varieties in the nurseries from Moriches to Montauk, but forestfarm offers upward of 5,000 varieties. Or try to find hardy orchids at local nurseries; not sure if you’ll find any but Plant Delights Nursery offers more than 20.
You’ll find that many of these nurseries specialize in one plant or in several plants. So if you’re a collector of plants it’s these specialists that will have particular appeal.
The reality is that if you have the time and patience, the only way to really establish a remarkable plant collection (hardy or indoor) is to get to know these mail-order nurseries because they are the front line of horticulture. In most cases these nurseries make the original introductions, have the breeding programs and actually do the explorations that bring back new plants from the far reaches of our large planet.
But there are good, bad and middling mail-order nurseries. You need to be a little savvy to know which ones to buy from and what to expect.
When buying trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and bulbs, some are shipped in the spring but some ship best and are planted best in the fall. Most of the nurseries will ship based on our hardiness zone, though you can often request a different shipping date as long as it fits in with the nursery’s shipping guidelines.
It’s not enough to find the plant you are searching for and a nursery that’s growing it. Unless you’re absolutely desperate (I confess to this), you should know a bit about the nursery you are dealing with before you shell out hundreds of dollars.
I’ve been amazed at the excellent condition the plants I’ve ordered from Bluestone Perennials arrive in. They’ve put a lot of thought into both their potting methods and boxing. Klehm’s has also amazed me and has shipped me 4-foot-tall trees that have arrived in remarkable shape, as have their perennials.
On the other end is the nursery that I ordered a particular heuchera from. I searched high and low and this place was the only one that had any of this plant in stock. They took my money and I waited. And waited. And waited.
When the plants finally arrived they were in the same cheap pots they had been grown in, then wrapped in newspaper. The soil had fallen out of the pots. The newspaper was soaking wet and moldy and three of the seven plants didn’t survive a week.
But there are two sides to the shipping game. You may recall when I started this series of columns that I mentioned that a few of the catalogs were also literary masterpieces. I exaggerated a bit but when I read the Ordering Information page in the Plant Delights catalog, I found a small section that I really wanted everyone to read. It comes under the heading “How to be a good customer.” So, with their permission, here it is:
“We realize that most folks have never been trained to be good customers, so we decided to offer a few pointers. First of all, become an educated customer by reading the catalog instructions carefully (if you are reading this, it’s a good sign). When calling please be patient. While you are the most important person at that moment, there are many more of you than there are of us, either on the other line, or standing at our office door. Whether on the phone or in person, it is important to be nice. Nice customers get amazingly better results than those with a different attitude. We hire only nice people, and we want only nice customers. If you are a mean person, we will be glad to provide you with a list of nurseries that deserve your business.
“Our nursery uses a thought process called logic. Logic dictates that if you order plants and forget to open them for a couple of months, don’t ask us to send free replacements. If your plants are fine when they arrive, and are later eaten by a vole, die from drought, or look like a fire hydrant to your local dog … don’t ask for more … to quote ‘Trek’s’ Spock, ‘It’s illogical.’
“We understand that folks change their minds … no problem. The changing of one’s mind at the last minute inevitably causes snafus on the receiving end. Please, if you change your mind, do so far enough in advance that we can accommodate your change. Too many last-minute shipping changes have resulted in unwanted mix-ups, not to mention a Valium dispenser in our shipping department.”
Now, back to my thoughts. If you need some tools to help you shop the catalogs, I have a few suggestions to consider.
First, speak with friends. Who have they ordered from and what has their experience been?
For the more common plants, shop several catalogs. Prices and sizes will vary from grower to grower and if there is any doubt as to what they are shipping, skip that vendor.
One source for feedback from other gardeners can be found at The Garden Watchdog, which is featured on davesgarden.com. The site claims to have a directory of 7,692 mail-order gardening companies, along with about 75,000 comments from nearly 40,000 customers. Keep in mind though that some of those customers may have been alluded to in the quoted paragraphs above.
You may also want to Google the name of the firm you are planning on placing your order with. A good way to get the real skinny is by entering the phrase, “Who owns xyz nursery.”
For example, if you do a search like “Who owns Gardens Alive” one of the hits will be “The scoop on Gardens Alive.” It takes you back to the Dave’s Garden site, where you’ll find that Gardens Alive has a pretty negative review record and some pretty interesting affiliations with other firms that some might consider, oh how shall we say this? Less than stellar?
Next week, my final tips on seeds and seed ordering. So get those wish lists ready and ya’ll come back.
The following week will focus on the fact that there will be only 35 weeks to All Hallows’ Eve. Believe it or not, it’ll be time to get ready.