Monday, February 6, 2012

You've Got Mail

Just as the influx of post-holiday mailers started to dwindle, my mailbox started filling up with tons of gardening catalogs.  I'm not complaining.  In fact, these colorful brochures brighten gray winter days with promises of beautiful blooms ahead.   

If you're a plantaholic like me, these catalogs will immediately spur you to spend.  But wait!  Before you go to your phone or keyboard, let me share some of my tips on mail-order shopping.  After years of mail-ordering, I have learned some good lessons and enjoyed some fantastic plants.

Winter eye candy

1. Shop with a Purpose
I've purchased many alluring mail-order plants with no idea for their placement.  These impulse purchases sometimes wither and die in their plastic pots before I find them a perfect place (if I actually ever do).  I do much better with some sort of plan.  For example, if I need a punch of yellow in a mixed bed, these catalogs with their colorful photos help me quickly sort out some options.  In the past, I've even cut out catalog pics of interesting plants and arranged them on a board to compare their compatibility with regards to color and shape.  The final arrangement becomes my plan.

2. Be a cautious shopper
Don't be fooled by the glossy pictures.  Not all mail-order sources send healthy plants.  I'll share my personal favorite mail-order resources tomorrow.   In the meantime, check out Dave's Garden Watchdog, providing customer reviews for thousands of garden companies.  I frequently refer to this online listing when I discover a new mail-order resource.

3. Skip the usual suspects
If a cultivar is really popular, expect to find a bigger and possibly cheaper plant at your local nursery.  I have been known to hastily order popular perennials online in early spring before the local nurseries stock up.  Just as my pocket-sized purchases arrived at proper planting time, I found more mature plants of the same perennial at my favorite local nursery.  

4. Try something new
These mail catalogs (and their websites) have introduced me to quite a number of plants that I could never have found locally.  I love growing out-of-the-ordinary perennials and shrubs.  Locally, trendy cultivars now replace many of the heirloom plants.  And, ironically, my best introductions to native plants have been through mail-order resources, not local growers.  My only advice when trying something new is to read and match the suggested growing conditions as best you can.

Long before they were sold locally, I found 'Raydon's Favorite' asters from a mail-order source

5. Patience is a virtue
Unfortunately, that big, beautiful plant blooming in your catalog will not arrive as pictured.  Production and shipping costs require most mail-order sources to send young plants.  Perennials will mature within a season or two and fill in nicely.  Most plants experience less transplant shock when younger anyway. Small shrubs and trees will take longer to mature than perennials, but I think watching a plant grow is part of the fun of gardening.  My favorite resources (list posted tomorrow) tend to ship bigger and healthier sizes.

This expansive patch of 'Hyperion' daylilies started off as 24 fans (divisions) from mail-order

6. Don't expect miracles
I love to push boundaries, but I've learned that you can't grow sunflowers in the shade or azaleas in dry sand.  The real lesson for me was to read and believe the growing advice printed in the catalogs.  Many of the better nurseries base their cultural information on real-life experiences. Trust them.  I've tried to outwit Mother Nature many times and lost.

7. Read the fine print
No two sources are the same so carefully read ordering information for each.  It'll provide shipping policies, delivery charges, plant size options and guarantees.  Many of these are small businesses so understand that they give you as much information as possible so you can make educated decisions.  If you have any questions, most nurseries can help you over the phone (email is like snail mail during prime season because they are generally out in the nursery, not at their desks).

8. Order early
If you have your eye on a particular plant, it's best to order early.  The closer it gets to prime planting season, the greater the chance stock will run out.  Plus many catalogs run preseason discounts.

9. Don't over do it
They say don't shop for groceries when you're hungry or you'll buy too much.  Similarly, the bleak days of winter can make us buy too many colorful additions to our garden.  And even if you do have a place for everything, do you actually have the time and energy to prep beds and plant huge deliveries of boxed plants before they die unattended?

10. Provide a welcoming reception
These babies have traveled for some distance and possibly handled by some pretty careless mail carriers. Open them up as soon as you can.  Gently lift them out of their packing and give them a drink of water. Keep them sheltered a day or two to get them acclimated to their new climate before planting.  And, if you've ordered too many to plant in a timely fashion (like I usually do), tend to them frequently as their small containers dry out easily.

Most of my native azaleas come from mail-order

Happy shopping!

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