Specialty nurseries in North America offer most any plant one might hope to find. I am amazed each year with the new ones I discover. And I appreciate the ease of ordering online or over the phone to shop from home.
Sometimes I feel almost guilty about the volume of catalogs our postman must bring us, especially in spring and fall.
The catalogs certainly stack up quickly, and are filled with such an amazing variety of plants. I love reading informative catalogs like the ones published by Wayside Gardens, Gardener’s Supply Company and Plant Delights Nursery. They allow me to stay current with new introductions, new trends, and new products. I can also compare prices for a product across several different companies to get a better idea of fair market value before ordering.
There are some plants I nearly always order. I prefer David Austin’s English roses for their form, color, and disease resistance and vigor. McDonald Garden Center is the closest vendor in this area, but they don’t carry the full catalog. I find it easier to order directly from the catalog, using the spring promotions they always offer in gardening magazines to get a substantial discount on the plants. David Austin roses are vigorous and healthy upon arrival, and they have a good customer service department.
I order Caladium tubers from one of the growers in Florida. They offer a substantial discount on lots of 25 tubers or more of a given variety. I always receive a few extra tubers, and end up paying less than $1 per plant. Compared to the average of $8 per plant in early summer at most area nurseries, there is a substantial savings, in addition to the tremendous selection the growers offer.
I also order most of my Begonia plants from Garden Harvest Supply Company. They have a huge selection from which to choose, send healthy, well rooted plants, and offer wonderful customer service. They have such a huge variety of plants, one could outfit an entire garden right from the catalog and get great value on the purchase. Cane Begonias are hard to find in this area. The Homestead Garden Center stocks more Begonias since I’ve been requesting them, but they still don’t have a large selection of unusual varieties.
I realize that we are very fortunate to live reasonably close to several good local nurseries. We have a huge selection of plants and products available within easy driving distance. That isn’t true everywhere, and so mail order nurseries, especially specialty nurseries; provide an important service to this nation of gardeners.
That said, I grow more cautious about purchasing plants through the mail each season. I’ve done a lot of ordering over the years, with mixed results. I’ve wasted a lot of money on plants that didn’t grow well, or ended up costing more than locally available equivalents would cost. And, some once respected companies have been bought out by shady operations. Operating under the familiar name, the company no longer lives up to its reputation and will not stand behind promises made.
As we begin a new gardening season, here are a few cautions I’d like to offer based on my own experiences, in hopes they might help someone just beginning to plant a garden of their own.
1. Begin with an idea of what plants you want to grow, and then shop based on that list. I started off doing it backwards. I looked through the catalogs, and then tried to figure out where I could plant the things I wanted. Like a child in a candy store, I wanted to order every beautiful blossom, leaf, and berry. Not only is the garden rather chaotic using that approach, but one wastes money on plants that never quite fit in.
2. Once you’ve made a list of plants to acquire, shop around for the best deal. In general, catalog prices are inflated. Many companies start out with extremely high prices, and then lower them through a variety of special deals and offers. I rarely pay full price for any mail order plant, because many of these nurseries offer serious discounts throughout the season.
Internet searches for a given plant will show you the different vendors which offer it, and you can begin the comparison shopping from there. Waiting until late in the season to place an order also yields a better price, in most cases. Since shipping times are fixed by the seasons, this doesn’t cause you to get the plant much later than you otherwise would.
3. Order in multiples. Not only will you generally pay less per plant, but your garden will look more cohesive with a greater number of fewer plants. Planting in clumps, or sweeps, of a single variety makes a much greater impact. A hedge, or an allee, is an elegant way to plant trees and large shrubs. Most vendors offer price breaks and promotional offers for larger orders.
4. Pay attention to how a plant is shipped from a prospective vendor. Will you receive a rooted cutting; a dormant, bare root plant; a potted and growing plant; a dormant bulb or tuber; or a packet of seeds? The age of the plant and what form it takes affects its price, but also how long it will take for you to enjoy the plant’s beauty.
Roses normally come bare root, but can be purchased in small pots, actively growing, from some vendors. Both forms can give flowers the first year they are planted. Bare root roses can be planted earlier in the spring, but take longer to establish.
Fruit trees normally come as bare root whips. Most reputable vendors allow you to select the size and age you prefer. These must be soaked and planted soon after they arrive, and will take several years to mature enough to produce fruit. Stark Bros. offers a great selection of healthy trees.
I once ordered a dozen very cheap Nanking cherry bushes from a popular discount nursery. They were only a foot or so tall when they arrived, but were healthy. I planted them as a hedge against a chain link fence to screen off the neighbor’s yard. They grew quickly and filled in within a few years. All of those rooted cuttings lived, bore cherries within a few years, and were covered in beautiful flowers each spring. A great bargain!
Bare root perennials and ferns are often dried out bits of root which must be soaked and planted. They may take weeks to show any growth, and a percentage may not survive at all. Live plants from local nurseries are usually much better deals.
Rare vegetables and flowers may only be available as seeds. The best selection of cultivars, especially heirloom varieties, usually comes from specialty seed companies. If growing from seed, make sure you can offer the seedlings enough light and warmth indoors to get off to a good start.
5. Research a plant thoroughly before ordering it, to make sure you can grow it successfully. The more you know about an individual plant, the more success you can expect. Especially when ordering trees, shrubs, and vines, know how large the plant will grow. Visit the space where you’ll plant it. Will it still fit in 15 years? Will it get the correct light? Do you have enough sun for it to grow well? Will it get too much sun or wind?
Check the plant’s cultural requirements carefully to determine whether it will survive both winter and summer in your climate. Determine whether you’ll need to provide an arbor, trellis, stakes, fencing, or other supports to properly grow the plant, and whether you need to order multiples for cross pollination.
6. Check out the vendor’s reputation. I was ready to place a large combined order for some friends and myself from one of the only nurseries offering muscadine grape vines, when I found some poor customer service reviews about the company. I hadn’t ordered from this company before, and so did some digging. It didn’t take long to realize that this little Mom and Pop operation had disappointed a lot of people. We decided not to order. It pays to do an internet search on any nursery to get the latest scoop. Even well known, established companies change hands and let their customer service slip from time to time. The information is out there and easy to find, and can save a lot of stress.
7. Get answers to your questions before you place that order! When will the order ship? Will the company honor your request for an earlier or later shipping date? When will your card be charged? What will the company do if you are unhappy with the condition of your plants? You will learn a lot by calling the companies customer service number to talk with the staff before placing an order. In fact, you might learn that there is no regular staff to talk with customers….
Be cautions of a company which charges you for a plant when the order is placed, but won’t ship the plant for many months to come. Your money is tied up for a long time with nothing to show for it. Seeds and supplies are generally shipped year round, but living plants will be shipped only during certain windows in spring and fall depending on the weather. I’ve had some frustrating experiences with a well known company who insisted on waiting too late into the early summer to ship out an order placed in late winter.
8. Remember to count the postage and handling charges into the order’s final price. Again, the costs vary wildly from vendor to vendor. If you are ordering a rare plant or cultivar, it may be worth it to you to pay whatever handling charges the vendor charges. This is the case with Plant Delights Nursery. They will ship up to three plants for a flat charge, and then charge per plant for each additional item.
Sometimes you’ll avoid shipping charges altogether by placing a larger order. I love to work with gardening friends to place a combined order to reduce or eliminate shipping charges. Often calculating the shipping is all it takes to convince me to be patient and shop locally for the plants I want to grow.
9. Communicate with the vendor! I generally send an email to confirm that I’ve received a shipment, and comment on its condition. If it has arrived in good shape, I offer thanks. If there is a problem, I document that problem immediately with photos. Plants are a big investment, and reputable nurseries stand behind their products. Once you’ve had a plant for a few weeks, it becomes more questionable whether a problem came with the plant or is due to your handling of it.
When you buy a plant locally, you take your choice of what is offered, finding the healthiest, largest, and best formed plants available. When a garden center knows you, they may even hold back the best plants in a shipment for you if you ask. Mail order nurseries simply pull stock, wrap and ship it. Whether you get the best of the lot is pure chance, and you’re at the mercy of the nursery.
I’ve had mixed results in reporting problems. Some nurseries will replace the plant immediately, some never will. I’ve found that documenting the condition of plants on arrival increases the likelihood that the nursery will stand behind their products.
If there is an opportunity to rate the product or level of customer service online, remember to do so to help others.
I hope these suggestions and observations prove helpful to you. All of this was learned the hard way, for good or for ill.
If you have had great experience with a vendor I’ve failed to mention, please tell me in the comments section. I’m always looking for great new nurseries to try!