By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Whether ordering from print catalogs or online, gardeners would likely tell you that mail-order is their least preferred way to purchase plants, and I generally agree. There is nothing like looking at a plant, touching it and carefully inspecting it before you purchase it. This is what we get to do at our local nurseries, gardens centers and feed stores.
In addition, anyone who has purchased mail-order plants sees that, almost always, the plants you get in the mail are smaller than you would find available at the local nursery. Also, mail-order plants are often more expensive than plants offered for sale locally. Packaging and shipping costs can add significantly to the cost of a mail-order plant.
Finally, whenever possible, I prefer to support our local nurseries and garden centers. When I buy locally, I know that I’m helping sustain our local businesses, which is important for our local economy.
Given that, why would any of us purchase plants, seeds, bulbs or garden products through mail-order? Well, pure and simple, it comes down to availability. Far, far more different kinds of plants and products are available through mail-order than could ever be carried by our local nurseries. When you want to grow a particular kind of plant and you cannot find it for sale locally, mail-order becomes the way to obtain plants, seeds or bulbs that you are looking for.
Many gardeners use online garden catalogs these days, but I still enjoy actually holding the catalogs in my hands and turning the pages. I like how easy it is to mark the plants you are interested in. Online catalogs do have their advantages, though. They can be regularly updated, and it is easy to order from them.
If you see a plant you want to grow in a print or online catalog, it’s easy to get it. All you have to do is order that plant, and the nursery will send it to you.
It is more difficult when you hear or read about a plant recommended for our area and decide you want to grow it. Perhaps you heard about it in a class or symposium or read about it in a magazine. If that particular plant is not available at your local nurseries, how are you going to get it?
In this situation, the internet has revolutionized how we find the plants we want. The process of finding a source was long, tedious and often frustrating before we could go online and quickly search for information. Nowadays, it’s simply a matter of typing the name of the plant and “for sale” into a search engine (preferably using the Latin name, but the common name often works). When you see the sources revealed by the search, you will be able to order the plant (or seeds or garden products) you are looking for from the online nursery’s website.
When purchasing mail-order plants or plant products, you need to be a savvy consumer. Because you cannot see the plants before they arrive at your house, you have to trust that the company will be sending quality merchandise. So, dealing with reputable companies is important.
A helpful site I have found is Dave’s Garden Garden Watchdog. It features a free directory of thousands of mail-order gardening companies. On this site, gardeners share their opinions on which companies really deliver on quality, price and service. And you can take advantage of this when considering placing an order with a particular nursery.
Here is some helpful advice on using gardening catalogs and websites:
- Use garden catalogs as planning tools for your garden plan. Flip through the catalogs to see what kinds of new plants and products are being offered. Or if you prefer, visit your favorite online catalogs and look over their offerings.
- Mark the plants, seeds, tools and garden accessories in the catalog that you’re interested in. I often look through catalogs with a highlighter in my hand to mark those things I might want to buy. If you are online, it may be easiest just to jot down the plants or products you are interested in and make a list (be sure to note the online nursery where you are looking). Or print a hard copy of the information on those plants.
- Go back through the catalogs and review everything you have flagged or what you listed or printed from online catalogs. Make a list of all the plants and products you decide you simply must have and intend to order.
- When ordering new types of plants or plants you are not familiar with, do your best to research those plants to see if they are appropriate for our climate. You can waste money on plants not adapted to long, hot, wet summers and our relatively mild winters (but are able to survive freezes in the teens in north Louisiana and in the 20s in south Louisiana). Check out plants in reference materials written for the Gulf South and ask local experts, when possible, before making decisions on what to order.
- Keep a list of all the orders you have placed so you can track the deliveries as they come in. It’s a good idea to scan or photocopy the filled-out order form from a print catalog before you put it in the mail. Also, be sure to print out copies of your order form when ordering online.
- Put the catalogs and copies of the order forms in a safe place so you can refer to them later. Then you can easily contact each catalog company if questions about your purchases arise. Remember, too, that most garden catalogs and websites have helpful gardening experts you can contact to get additional gardening information and advice.
The heat of August tends to make me spend more time indoors than in my gardens. But that doesn’t stop me from gardening. Instead, I can spend time indoors flipping through nursery catalogs or viewing online websites dreaming about new plants to grow or looking over new gardening tools — and still keep cool.