If there's a plant that I must have, chances are I can find it online or in a mail-order catalog. Both of these sources offer a huge selection and convenience. It's the best way to buy fruit trees and some shrubs, especially roses. Most local nurseries and home centers just don't offer as many varieties of those plants. And the prices are usually comparable to those charged by nurseries, although costs can vary greatly. When I checked five different places for a price on a 4-in. purple cone flower (Echinacea
), I found five different prices, ranging from $3.00 to $7.99. Annuals are usually prohibitively expensive online or in catalogs -- as much as a buck a plant. And the quality is dicey as well.
But there are deals out there. I found a 2-gal. dwarf holly selling for $29.99 at the local nursery. I've seen the same plants, albeit smaller, for $18.99 via mail order. Even with shipping, the cost for these shrubs beats the price at nurseries. Factor in a quantity discount if you're buying a bunch, and they are considerably cheaper.
Shopping from catalogs or online, though, is more of a gamble than shopping at a nursery because you can't examine the plants. When they arrive, the plants always seem to be smaller than what you imagined when ordering. Fortunately, they usually catch up in size with nursery plants.
Steve Frowine, director of horticulture for Etera, a wholesale nursery, says the problem is that there's no industry standard for plants. Frowine has also worked for Burpee and White Flower Farm, and he ran his own mail-order nursery company. Plants are normally sold by pot size, he notes, "But a plant advertised as growing in a 4-in. pot may have been growing in that pot long enough to become root-bound, or it may have just been transplanted into it and have hardly any roots. If you're buying sight unseen there's no way you can know."
Find a familiar name. Frowine recommends finding a company you trust. If you need help, talk to friends and neighbors. Or check on the Web for ratings of mail-order nurseries, such as "The Plants by Mail FAQ" at www.plantsbymail.net
. Study the site or catalog carefully. The content will offer you a clue to the reliability and professionalism of the company. Every plant listing should include the complete botanical name, hardiness information and, with any luck, a good picture. The catalog or site should indicate whether the plant is shipped bare-root or in a container and include specific shipping information. You don't want a tender plant to arrive while the ground is still frozen solid.
Get a guarantee. Make sure the company stands behind its plants and offers to replace those that don't survive shipping and transplanting. Don't settle for a wishy-washy "guarantee" such as "We will do our best to satisfy you."