They all contain gorgeous photos of absolutely perfect flowers and blemish-free fruits and vegetables that make it very difficult to resist an order or two. That’s especially true when the wind chill in our zone 5a garden is 40 degrees below zero and there’s a foot of snow on the ground. I’d like to share with you some ruminations about mailorder gardening that are the result of many years of placing orders with mail-order firms, often with happy results, but also with some not-so-happy ones.

Here they are:

1) When tempted to order an item by mail, first try to determine if you can obtain it locally from a greenhouse or garden center in your area. Make a list of all the items you’d like to order and then call around to see if they’ll be available in the spring. If the answer for a particular plant is no, ask the person on the phone if he or she can order it for you. Granted, mail-ordering is usually fast and convenient, but chances are, you’ll get a plant that’s a lot healthier and more vigorous from a local garden center than one that has been selected for you sight unseen and has endured the rigors of mailing.

2) Beware of descriptions that don’t tell you the size of the plant you’ll get. You may pay $12 or $15 for that beautiful plant in the catalog, but it arrives in a three-inch pot and is barely three or four inches tall. At that size, it will not survive in your garden if you plant it among already established plants that will soon crowd and shade it. If it’s a must-have plant, and you know that it will be small when it arrives, designate a “nursery space” in your garden or elsewhere in your yard where it can grow and mature to a transplantable size by the following year. If you don’t know the size of the plant you’re ordering, it’s always a good idea to call or email the company and ask.

3) Hardiness zones should always be stated for each perennial plant the catalog is offering. If the plant is not hardy in your zone, don’t order it unless you’re an experienced gardener and know about microclimates and mulching techniques or plan to winter the plant indoors. Not all companies agree on the hardiness of a given plant. More than once I’ve ordered a plant said to hardy in zone 5, only to find out later that most authorities agree that the plant is only hardy to zone 6. That would be over 400 miles to the south in Missouri!

4) Carefully scrutinize any catalog or web site that seems to offer plants at a bargain price. As I’ve already said, make sure you know the size and hardiness of what you’re ordering. But just as important, check shipping costs. Such costs vary widely among companies. All too often, those that offer plants at lower prices seem to make up the loss by charging more for shipping. On the other hand, some higher shipping charges are legitimate. Conscientious, well-established companies may charge what seems like a very high rate, but that's because they go the extra mile by providing superior packaging. It insures that plants and soil stay in their pots instead of being jostled all over the shipping container and arriving dead or stressed beyond recovery.

One of my worst—or perhaps funniest—experiences with a mail order nursery happened last January. I had ordered some daffodil bulbs for planting during that previous fall. When they didn’t arrive before the ground froze, I sent off an email inquiring of their whereabouts. I received no response and had almost forgotten about them when a mystery package arrived on our doorstep right after a big snow. When I opened the package, I was speechless. There, in the middle of winter, were the long-lost daffodils. After I regained my speech, I went directly to my computer and fired off the following: “What were you folks thinking, shipping me daffodil bulbs in January! It's two degrees above zero. The ground is hard as a rock. Please refund my money immediately!

© Larry Rettig 2008

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 19, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)