In the world of mail order gardening, there have always been thorns among the roses. Our gardening forebears had to learn through trial-and-error which companies were reputable and which catalogs should be put to immediate use lining the birdcage. Before the Internet, a mail order gardener's sphere of influence was limited to sharing his or her experiences with family, friends, neighbors and perhaps the local garden club. Gardening magazines were the only way to discover new plant, seed and bulb sources. As recently as the 1980s, I had to visit the library of my local botanical garden to obtain addresses and send away for garden catalogs. When those catalogs arrived, I cautiously made a few tentative purchases, relying on luck and intuition. Most of those early adventures turned out fine, and my confidence in mail order gardening grew.

I wasn't aware of it at the time, but a helpful book titled "Gardening by Mail" was written and published by Barbara Barton back in the mid-1980s to help her fellow gardeners sort out the who's who of the mail order world. The fifth edition was printed in 1997, and I'm glad I have a copy of it, even though it's now out of print. During the height of catalog season, it resides on my desk along with a precarious stack of the newest catalogs.

With the 1990s came the Internet. Suddenly, tech-savvy gardeners could correspond with one another, sharing their knowledge and opinions with a bourgeoning worldwide audience. Through listserves and electronic bulletin boards, anyone could extol the virtues of their favorite companies, and thrash those they despised. If you happened to catch the conversation, you were in the know, but if you didn't, you stilImagel had to learn for yourself.

By 1994, Peter Leppik was working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He saw an opportunity to consolidate some of those rants and raves in one permanent spot on the web, which he dubbed the Plants By Mail FAQ (soon shortened to PBM-FAQ.) From his website, he issued an open invitation for readers to email him with comments on their plant purchases, since buying bare-root plants by mail can be a great way to snag rare plants, or a major source of disappointment.

A few years later, Joe Robinson assumed the editorial duties from Peter. Many mail order plant companies were launching websites and creating email addresses, making it easier for customers to reach them electronically. When I noticed a lot of outdated information in the PBM-FAQ, I contacted Joe and volunteered to help him update the companies' information with whatever I could find online.

At about the same time, Dave's Garden had become my garden "home." In September 2001, Dave introduced the weekly interactive voting booth that we still update with a new question each week. That little widget sparked our imagination, and we envisioned a tool that could allow gardeners to "vote" on other their favorite gardening companies. It seemed like such a good idea, we couldn't believe no one else had built a comprehensive directory for gardeners to find and rate their favorite mail order companies. The few directories that existed had serious shortcomings; none of them allow readers to post reviews themselves; many were incomplete and outdated, and none of them were user-friendly or easy to search and browse.

For the next few weeks, we worked furiously to build and test a new database, then began populating it with mail order companies. When we launched the Garden Watchdog in late November 2001, it contained only about 150 companies. Within a month, it contained more than 1,000 companies and today has over 6,500 (now almost 7,500) mail order companies listed.

In 2003, Joe Robinson announced he was ready to pass the torch on the Plants By Mail FAQ. He agreed to allow us to take over the administration of it, and we created a temporary database similar to the Garden Watchdog. It contained 4,000 or so comments, dating back to 1994. We assigned a rating to each comment, and gave each submitter a username to replace the email addresses that had previously identified them in the PBM-FAQ. The merger doubled the number of comments in the Garden Watchdog. Today the Watchdog contains over 40,000 comments, and continues to grow every day.

When we launched the Garden Watchdog, a few companies cautioned us that we would wind up being a lightning rod for disgruntled customers. We knew from our own personal experiences that most mail order companies are wonderful to work with, so we listened to their concerns. We decided to encourage readers to post their good experiences, along with the occasional bad one, and the comments have steadily maintained a high ratio of positive comments (around 70%) to negative comments (about 20%), with a few neutral comments here and there.

We began the Garden Watchdog with a "Top 10" list of the best companies. As the number of listings increased, we expanded it to the top 20 companies, and now have 30 top companies spotlighted on the home page. These coveted "top spots" are awarded to companies based on their reviews, and the list is updated each time a new review is submitted. Recent reviews are more heavily weighted than older reviews, making sure that up-and-coming companies have a fair shot at breaking into this elite group. Many companies tout their "top" standing in their catalogs and website messages, and for good reason: the Garden Watchdog is now the place gardeners turn to for unbiased and unsolicited reviews.

We are happy that some smaller and lesser-known companies have become Garden Watchdog reader favorites, and it's nice to know we've had a hand in helping tame the mail order gardening frontier. This trusty tool provides well-deserved positive exposure for good companies and allows them to flourish, while helping gardeners "root out" the rogue seedlings that pop up when no one is watching. If you haven't checked out the Garden Watchdog, you should (you'll find it under the Products & Sources tab). And be sure to add your own reviews--what you know will help others!


Credits: A big thanks to Melody and the ever-photogenic Carly, who agreed to be our Watchdog model for this article, in exchange for a few nibbles of ham.