Your favorite local nursery carries the plants they do for a good reason: they try to bring you the latest and greatest, the plants that are getting all the media hype. You will probably find all of the old standards, too. But they can't carry two hundred varieties of roses and still have room for all the evergreens you want. What if you are looking for that old rose your grandma grew?
Chances are that you can find grandma's rose at a specialty rose grower and order it through the mail, either from a print catalog or online. Some growers will even propagate a rose for you if they do not have it available, but they still would need a mother plant for this service. There are a huge number of specialty growers in all fields and with the internet they are more accessible than ever.
One of the best ways to find a specialty grower is right here at Dave's Garden under the 'Products and Sources' tab. Click on this link to access the Garden Watchdog, a searchable directory of over 6,000 mail-order gardening companies. There are many ways to search through this database, but to look for a specialty grower scroll down to 'Browse by Category'. If you don't find a category that fits, you can try looking through PlantFiles (DG's enormous plant database), find a plant that fits your category and see if a PlantScout participating vendor sells it. The Garden Watchdog will have member reviews and ratings for most vendors, so do your homework before you order for the first time, and after your order arrives, be sure to leave feedback to help others.
In the opening paragraph, I mentioned the amazing variety of plants that are available by mail. Mail-order is also extremely convenient. Store shopping is tiring, time-consuming and most of the time you come home without the plant you wanted (but probably with a trunkful of plants you don't really need.) With mail-order, you can often shop months ahead for your spring plants so you know your choices will be available. Most nurseries will hold your order for the proper planting time in your area.
There are some things you will NOT get when you order plants by mail. They will not be cheap plants. If they are, be very wary unless they are from a familiar grower. Generally, you will get what you pay for. A second consideration is that they will not be exceptionally large. The shipping is prohibitive on very large specimens and small plants do grow. All that is needed is some patience. Just do not be disappointed when your plants arrive. Pay attention to the sizes listed. You can also go to the appropriate forums here at DG and post a question about what to expect. Generally there will be someone who has ordered and can tell you what they received.
Now for some personal experiences. When I acquired my current home about six years ago, I was finally able to do what I refer to as "serious" gardening. Never before did I have sunny spaces just begging for flowers and shrubs of all kinds. There was plenty of time while the house was being built to plan gardens, and plan I did: a rose garden, a heather garden, an herb garden, a butterfly/hummingbird garden. From the reading I did it quickly became apparent that I wouldn't be able to find the plants I wanted the most at my local nurseries. At left is pictured 'Polareis' (aka 'Polar Ice' or 'Ritausma'), a hybrid rugosa rose, hybridized by Dr. Rieksta in Latvia in 1963. It was not available in the U.S. until 2005 and was still difficult to locate when I purchased it in 2007. I'm fairly certain it was not available locally. I ordered it from North Creek Farm in Phippsburg, Maine. The owner, Suzy Verrier, is a noted rosarian and the author of two books.
One of the first gardens I built in 2005 was a heather garden with dwarf conifers for accents. In our development, we are not allowed to grow any tall trees in our backyards, so I needed something striking without too much height. I planned an area of about five hundred square feet. When I looked locally for heathers, I found only two or three varieties. That would have made a pretty boring garden, at that size, with that little variation. True dwarf conifers are even more difficult to find. Some may be slow growers, but I wanted true dwarfs that would never exceed four to six feet in height. So I turned to the internet. Now, three years later, I have a collection of 15 varieties of heaths and heathers that bloom year round in zone 6 and a dozen dwarf conifers of various species.
When I was first looking at herbs I had no idea I would need a specialty grower. A kitchen garden would need the basics--parsley, sage, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, rosemary, possibly cilantro for that Mexican touch. Or so I thought. Little did I know I would become addicted to mints and creeping thymes. At last count I have more than a dozen varieties of creeping thyme in various places; underplantings for roses, spilling over rocks, filling in bare spots between pavers. There are chimney flue tiles just to contain the mints; chocolate, pineapple, lemon, lavender, apple and curly. I need more!
Following is a list of some of my favorite specialty growers. When I can, I like to stick to East Coast locations to save on shipping and northern growers who may understand the hardiness issues I face in my western New York garden near the Canadian border. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you are interested in bulbs, dahlias, cacti, bonsai, gourds or almost any other plant you can think of, you can find a grower who specializes. Have fun and I hope you find the plant of your dreams.