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.
Likewise, 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!
The 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.