Plants Through the Post

Roses from a well known rose company arrived with an infestation of black spot.

Roses from a well known rose company arrived with an infestation of black spot in 2010.  They recovered, and are beautiful in the butterfly garden.

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.

Roses already in growth take off much faster than bare root roses.

Roses already in growth take off much faster than bare root roses.

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.

David Austin's English shrub roses offer wonderful fragrance.

David Austin’s English shrub roses offer wonderful fragrance.

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.

Caladiums puchased as tuers ae economical, an deasy to start indoors.

Caladiums purchased as tubers are economical, and easy to start indoors.

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.

The Homestead Garden Center stocks a huge selection of beautiful plants.

The Homestead Garden Center stocks a huge selection of beautiful plants.

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.

A friend ordered this beautiful ginger lilywhe n weco mbined orders this spring.

A friend ordered this beautiful ginger lily from Easy To Grow Bulbs when we combined orders this spring.

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.

Elephant Ear, Colocasia, "Blue Hawaii" , is a plant I shopped for extensively this spring.

Elephant Ear, Colocasia, “Blue Hawaii,”  is a plant I shopped for extensively this spring.

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.

May 13 2013 Garden photos 003

Iris and roses dominate this end of the butterfly garden in May. Iris form large clumps, and may be spaced widely when planted.

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.

This hardy Begonia from Plant Delights Nursery arrived in bloom.

This hardy Begonia from Plant Delights Nursery arrived in bloom.

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 give spring a beautiful, early, start in the garden.

Fruit trees give spring a beautiful, early, start in the garden.

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.

This David Austin rose was new in 2012, and really took off with growth this year.

This David Austin rose was new in 2012, and really took off with growth this year.

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?

Fuchsias need shade, protection from wind, and abundant moisture to survive a Virginia summer.

Fuchsias need shade, protection from wind, and abundant moisture to survive a Virginia summer.  These were ordered from Garden Harvest Supply Co., which offers an extensive collection.

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.

Document and contact the company if it doesn't arrive in prime condition.  This hydrangea eventually grew, but the vendor offered to replace it.

Document the condition of the shipment and contact the company if it doesn’t arrive in prime condition. This hydrangea eventually grew, but the vendor offered to replace it.

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.

Most of the plants in this photo came in the mail only a few months before this photo, taken in June.

Most of the plants in this photo came in the mail only a few months before this photo, taken in late June.

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.

Specialty seeds must nearly always come from catalogs.

Specialty seeds must nearly always come from catalogs.

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.

Hosta and ferns, always tempting in catalogs, perform best when purchased locally.

Hosta and ferns, always tempting in catalogs, perform best when purchased already in growth.  When purchased bare root, they take a long time- perhaps a year or more- to look good.

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!


December 4 garden 015

There is a special beauty in the form and structure of a bare tree after it has dropped its annual crop of leaves.  Like the beauty of a classical statue, one can see the truth of its bones.  Leaves, for all of their movement and color, veil the beauty of branches and buds.

Looking at a bare tree is a study in pure potential. 

Sycamore with seed pods

Sycamore with seed pods

All of the life drawn inwards to the wood and roots as it prepares itself to weather another season of freezing cold and winter storms.  It has strengthened itself without becoming brittle.  It has released its sheaf of ice and snow catching leaves which would weight it and break it in winter’s icy winds.

Isn’t it ironic that as we add layer upon woolen and fleecy layer to weather winter’s worst days, the trees are shedding their summer garb to survive the months ahead?December 5 2013 DOG St 060  Left to themselves, the leaves gather and drift into brown and crinkled blankets, insulating and nourishing their own roots.

And those roots hold the life of the tree and promise of another spring.  No matter if branches break or get pruned.  Life will flow again in the rising sap to grow back and grow more than ever before.  The buds of new life are forming even during the seeming sleep of winter.  Look closely, and you’ll see those buds swelling on every twig.

Dogwood covered in buds for spring's flowers.

Dogwood covered in buds for spring’s flowers.

Now we return to the season of lacy silhouette, drawn against the ever changing skies.  Perfect algorithms of division and multiplication reveal themselves.  Each family of tree revealing its own peculiar geometry and idiosyncratic proofs and promise of the coming season’s growth.

Seed pods, nuts, fruits, and cones still clinging to twigs guard the seeds of another generation in wait; suspended between autumn and spring; each containing the entire blueprint of the whole encrypted in microscopic perfection.

Like Jonah, many must first be swallowed into the belly of a beast before seeing light, again, and a chance for germination.December 5 2013 DOG St 070

Those  who know Pirsig understand this blurring of science and art; philosophy and living technology.

The world is not one or another.  It is all.  Only in sensing the all do we begin to understand its poetry of perfection.

This is a tale to unravel in winter, when all is revealed to those who look with wonder and understanding.dec 2 2013 parkway 021

-Woodland Gnome

The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do.”

Robert M. Pirsig

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”

Robert M. Pirsig


All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

November 30 Parkway 021

Potting Up

succulent gardenGrowing in a pot or hanging basket gives  a plant just the right soil for its needs. The pot or basket can be moved around to get just the right amount of sun or shade.  The plant doesn’t have to compete with the roots of other plants, unless you choose to plant a group who will grow well together.

Tips and Tricks for Potting Up

1.  Make sure the pot has one or more holes for drainage.  Without drainage, the plant will most likely drown when it rains, or if it is over watered.  Cover the bottom of the empty pot with a piece of landscaping fabric or a paper towel.  This holds the soil in the pot until the plants’ roots grow out to hold the soil.  Landscape fabric will present a barrier to pill bugs and other creatures who want to climb in through the drainage hole to make a new home for themselves.

July 6 2013 garden 013

The paper towel will absorb water, and then release it back to the soil as needed to help the soil stay evenly moist between waterings.  Eventually, the paper will decompose.

2.  I spread a shallow layer of gravel over the paper or landscape fabric.  I believe this allows an extra margin for water to drain out of the soil, especially if the pot is outside during a rainy spell.

July 6 2013 garden 014

3.  Partially fill the pot with fresh potting soil.  I like a peat based mix which advertises that it will also feed the plants for the first few months.   A  little sand or gravel mixed with the soil improves drainage for succulents.  A little compost can be mixed into the soil for vegetables.   The soil should be moist, but not too wet.  A plants’ roots need to breathe, especially in a pot.  Dirt dug up in the yard will be too heavy and the plant will have difficulty.

July 6 2013 garden 017

4.  Mix some fertilizer into the soil.  I often use Espoma Plant Tone for flowering plants, or Tomato Tone for vegetable plants.  This enriches the soil and feeds plants over the long term.  Osmocote is a good short term fertilizer which will release nutrients at each watering for about four months.

5.  Make a well in the center of the soil for the root ball of the new plant.  Push the fresh potting mix against the sides of the pot, especially if the pot has concave areas like this one does.

6.  Remove the new plant from its nursery pot, loosen the roots slightly, and place into the new pot.  Fill in with additional potting soil around the roots, tamping the soil gently until it is firm and all spaces are filled.  Keep the plant at the same depth as it grew in the nursery pot, unless you know it will grow new roots along the stem like a tomato plant will.  Some plants, especially shrubs or trees, will actually suffocate if you put too much soil over the root ball.  Sprinkle some Osmocote onto the soil.

July 6 2013 garden 018

7. Top dress the soil with fine gravel or small bits of shell.  The layer of gravel serves several purposes.  First, it looks nice.  It protects the plant from splashed soil during a rain, and protects the soil from erosion during a heavy rain or watering.  Finally, it offers the plant some protection from slugs and snail, who don’t like the gravel, and from digging squirrels, who will be deterred from digging in the pot.

July 6 2013 garden 019

This Echeveria nodulosa is top dressed with pea gravel and stones picked up along a beach on the Puget Sound. This will protect the roots from digging squirrels, and will discourage slugs from eating the leaves.  Echeveria leaves will root, and so those broken off during potting are stuck about 1/4 into the soil around the parent plant.

8.  Water in the newly potted  plant.  I like to make a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest for the first watering to strengthen the plant and counteract any transplant shock.  This first watering settles the soil around the roots of the plant and helps prevent any air pockets which could allow the roots to dry out.  Place most plants in a shady area for a day or so to let their roots adjust before moving into a sunnier spot. 


This Echeveria nodulosa is a succulent, which enjoys the heat of full sun, and so it has gone to its new permanent spot in the garden.

These succulents live in a pot with no drainage.  There are two inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot, and it is watered sparingly.

These succulents live in a pot with no drainage. There are two inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot.  It is watered sparingly and kept sheltered from the rain.

July 7 2013 succulents 005

Plants growing in pots don’t have the same available nutrients as plants growing into deep Earth out in the garden.  They rely on the gardener for care and feeding.  I use a multi-layered approach to feeding by enriching the soil as a plant is potted, top-dressing with a slow release fertilizer, and also feeding with a diluted fish emulsion and seaweed fertilizer every few weeks when the plant is actively growing.  Each of these products approaches feeding in a slightly different way. 

Here are the products I’ve used successfully:

Espoma    I use Rose Tone and Holly Tone out in the garden and Plant Tone and Tomato Tone both in the garden and when potting up.

Neptune’s Harvest


The best source for all of these products, beautifully grown plants, and excellent gardening advice in the Williamsburg area is the Homestead Garden Center on Rochambeau Drive/Rt. 30 west of Toano

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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