Garden Shopping by Mail and Web

Shopping by mail or the Web is like having the world's largest garden center at your fingertips, an experience most gardeners instinctively understand. They've come to rely on the convenience and variety that remote shopping provides for these items, but when it comes to horticultural supplies and live plants, many gardeners are reluctant. It's understandable to want to see the plants and products before you buy and to be certain you can return them if problems arise.

Though shopping by mail-order catalog or on the Web doesn't offer the immediate gratification of buying at a local nursery, it does offer numerous advantages. Catalog and Web shopping is not just convenient for the avid gardener, it's essential. Given the extreme diversity of the plant world, not even the largest nursery can begin to stock everything you might want.

With many companies placing their entire catalog or product line on the Web, it's easier than ever to search for a specific item, comparison shop, and obtain detailed information about a plant or product before buying it. Shopping by mail allows you to track down an unusual alpine plant for your rock garden or finally get your hands on a rare orchid available from only a few specialists--without slogging through crowds or traffic.

Garden catalogs aren't limited to plants; you can also buy a variety of tools, pest control products, drip irrigation supplies, even a greenhouse kit. Buying costlier items by mail (and from a different state) may also save you from paying state tax.

To ensure a positive shopping experience, here are some tips on choosing the right catalog, reading and ordering from catalogs (whether print or electronic), and what to do when your plants arrive.

Catalog Savvy

Nothing beats experience, so order from a number of companies and compare their performance or ask other gardeners about their experiences. For a list of mail-order companies, the Mail Order Gardening Association, Box 2129, Columbia, MD 21045, publishes a Garden Catalog Guide ($2) with contact information for more than 120 of its members.

There are also Web sites dedicated to garden catalog listings. Cyndi's Catalog of Catalogs lists more than 1,700 garden catalogs. 

Before you leap into the pages of a glossy catalog or jump on a Web site, consider your garden's growing conditions, what types of plants will thrive in your area, and how much space you have. No matter how tempting a photograph looks or description sounds, trying to grow a plant outside its USDA

Hardiness range or in the wrong location (full sun instead of shade) is a formula for failure.

After carefully reviewing your needs, do some comparison shopping. Check product availability, costs of similar plants, refund and return policies, and shipping fees. Here are additional tips for reading and ordering from a garden catalog or Web site.

* Check plant descriptions. They should be honest (no plant is perfect in every way) and easy to understand. Don't rely too heavily on photographs to indicate the actual color of a flower. Plant colors vary by planting conditions and individual varieties, and look different on a computer monitor. The plant hardiness range (usually listed as USDA Hardiness Zones 1 to 11), botanical name (so you get the exact plant you want), and basic growing requirements (sun, water) should be listed.

* Check how plants were grown. Were the plants nursery grown or collected from the wild? It's best to purchase nursery-grown plants to avoid depleting wild stocks of native plants.

* Contact numbers. Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for customer service should be clearly visible. Company representatives should be attentive to your questions.

* Guarantee policies. The refund and return policies should be clear and obvious. Check for cut-off dates by which you have to request a refund or replacement.

* Ordering. Order early to avoid items being sold out, especially if they're new or unusual. Specify the size of plants you want. Smaller plants are less expensive but may take longer to fill in the garden. Indicate whether or not you want the company to substitute out-of-stock plants. Many companies will automatically substitute a similar plant if the one you ordered is sold out. Specify special delivery dates. Keep records of your purchases, and double-check them when your order arrives.

What to Do When Plants Arrive

Almost all companies will ship hard goods and seeds immediately upon receiving your order.

Unless you specify otherwise, live plants and bulbs are shipped at the appropriate time for your growing region. Most companies ship plant material throughout the year, but they will postpone shipping during heat waves or cold spells. Expect possible delays during those times.

Live plants require immediate attention, but don't panic if you haven't dug your holes and prepared the beds for the new arrivals. Here are some tips for temporarily (for a few weeks) holding plants until you're ready.

Store summer bulbs such as dahlias and lilies in their box in a dark room and mist the bulbs lightly to keep them moist until planting. Iris rhizomes can tolerate some indirect light. Store fall-planted bulbs such as tulips and daffodils in a cool, dry location.

Most perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees are shipped bare root (dormant without any soil on the roots and no leaves). When they arrive, remove the packaging except for the protective wrapping (sawdust, newspaper, plastic) around the roots. Keep the plants out of direct sun, and moisten the roots frequently. To hold plants more than a week, keep them in a shaded location and cover them with soil or soil mix. Cover the roots with any combination of compost, peat moss, or garden soil, and keep moist. A few hours before planting them in their permanent location, remove the wrapping and soak roots in water to reduce transplant shock. Don't worry if bare-root plants are slow starters compared with other plants. (For example, some trees may take until mid-summer to fully leaf out.)

The latest trend in mail-order gardening is shipping green or live plants in potting soil-filled containers. Roses, other flowers, herbs, and vegetables might be shipped this way. These plants tend to be more expensive than bare-root stock but suffer less from transplant shock. When they arrive, immediately remove them from their packaging, water, and place them in a protected area with indirect light. Plant them at the proper time for your area.

Enjoy the Garden

Most gardeners who have ordered through the mail have had positive experiences with the quality and timeliness of their orders. Catalog shopping allows you to spend more time enjoying the garden instead of hunting for plants and products. On the following pages you'll find some of us enjoying a small sampling of the many garden plants and products that are now available by mail.

Troubleshooting

Even though catalog shopping is nearly always safe and reliable, things may go wrong. If you have a problem, here are some steps you can take. First, call the company and explain your problem. Most companies will try to solve it on the spot. If the problem is not resolved over the phone, write to the company and send a copy of your letter to the magazine where you saw its advertisement. Another course of action is to contact the Mail-Order Action Line (1111 19th Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20036; 202-955-5030, www.the-dma.org, or e-mail: consumer@the-dma.org. The MOAL is funded by the Direct Marketing Association and may intercede on your behalf.