Photo by Melody

Mail Order Plants: Is What You See What You Get?

By Angela Carson (Bookerc1January 22, 2009

January is here, with all its accompanying ice and wind and dreary days. In the midst of all this gray and white, there is one bright spot: the colorful catalogs that fill my mailbox every day! I can almost feel the warmth emanating from their sun-filled pages, and I can't wait to curl up on the sofa with my latest catalog to dream of warmer days in the garden.

Gardening picture
Ah, the dreams I dream with those pages in my hands! I can see my entire yard transformed into a wave of color and texture! I start making lists, sorting by sun, shade, color, and height. I cross out and re-write. I go to the internet, and open multiple tabs so I can flip quickly from one plant to another, building my list for the coming year (until I consult my checkbook balance, and transfer most them to a wishlist for future years!)  I give my husband nervous fits by printing off my "Shopping Carts" from multiple websites.  He secretly disposes of my catalogs, hoping to head off another digging and planting spree.  Eventually, I finalize my decisions, hit the "submit" button, and begin the long wait for my seeds and plants to arrive.

But what, exactly, will arrive? The catalogs feature pictures of little girls holding dahlias bigger than their heads, grandmotherly women stretching to pluck tomatoes from the upper reaches of the plant, and adorable tykes climbing on pumpkins twice their height. Often our dreams far out-reach the reality of what we'll find when we open those boxes, and discover the young plants within!

I live in a very small town, with no local sources for plants other than the small offerings at the local hardware store, so I've depended heavily on mail-order gardening to build my garden. My own experiences have ranged from dismal to phenomenal. There have been times when I opened a box to find muddy packing peanuts and a sorry, nearly rootless twig in a vastly oversized pot, after weeks or months of waiting and numerous e-mail and phone inquiries regarding my missing order.

ImageLikewise, there have been times when I've been pleasantly surprised at both the speed and quality of the shipments I've received, as I was last year when I ordered several hydrangeas and dictamnus from a source I discovered through the Garden Watchdog feature here at Dave's Garden. There was nary a packing peanut in sight, and the method of packing the pots was sheer genius! Not a crumb of dirt escaped, the soil was pleasantly moist, but not soggy, and the plants were supported and prevented from shifting in the box with strategically placed bamboo stakes.

I've determined that there are two very important things to consider before ordering from a catalog or website. First, pay attention to the size of pot or plant that they say they will ship. If it is listed as a quart pot, be prepared to receive exactly that: a quart pot! However, if it specifies that you will receive a two-year old plant in a gallon pot, and you pay the associated higher price for a larger, more mature plant, you are right to be disgruntled if the plant you receive is spindly and undersized. Similarly, if you ordered a new, unusual double daylily in a spectacular dark red, and it bloomed single and an unexceptional faded pink, you have grounds for contacting the company and requesting a replacement or refund!

ImageThe other important thing to consider is not the price, as you might think, but the reputation of the company. Other gardeners are your best resource in this regard, as you can learn from their mistakes and avoid the companies that don't follow through on their promises! You'll find that multiple companies will offer the same plant, and even use the same stock photo, but will charge different amounts for it. If it is a second-rate company, and your plant dies before it has a chance to thrive, your bargain is suddenly not such a bargain after all!

That is why I have such a deep appreciation of the Garden Watchdog feature here at Dave's Garden. You can access it any time by clicking on the Products and Sources tab at the top of the home page. It is a listing of nearly 6,600 mail order gardening sources, with ratings by Dave's Garden members who have actually ordered from them. Members are encouraged to post both their positive and negative experiences, and give the company a rating of positive, negative, or neutral. Vendors also have the opportunity to respond to posts.  Click here to read Terry Lea's excellent history of the Garden Watchdog feature! 

Without exception, my best and most impressive mail order plant purchases have been from companies I discovered through the Garden Watchdog. They aren't necessarily the ones with the loveliest catalogs, or the most professionally designed websites, but they are the ones with exceptional service and strong, healthy plants! In those cases, I take a leap of faith, trusting in the recommendations of my fellow gardeners, and I have always been pleased when I saw what I actually did get!


 I'd like to extend my thanks to the Dave's Garden members who so kindly allowed me to use their photographs in my article: 

Paul Herbst (mosbyone) for his picture of a shipment of daylily fans (top)

Robert Pierce (Stressbaby) for his picture (below, center) of Hydrangea Preziosa.  (click on the picture to open a new window with the associated Plant Files entry)

Poppysue for her picture (below, right) of Dictamnus Albus (click on the picture to open a new window with the associated Plant Files entry)

All other photographs are my own. 

Newly unpacked Preziosa Hydrangea, left, and Dictamnus Albus, right
 Hydrangea Preziosa, picture by StressbabyMature Dictamnus Albus







  About Angela Carson  
Angela CarsonAngie was bitten hard by the gardening bug when she was just a child, and has been doing her best to infect as many people as possible ever since! She particularly has a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which she is teaching the next generation how to preserve. Her two sons have obviously inherited her interest in growing things, and her husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for her latest schemes! Follow Angie on Google.

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