Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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Plant Hunting Season is Here!

20150105Horticultural catalogs begin to arrive in large numbers at the beginning of the year, first seed and garden tool catalogs, then summer bulb catalogs a little later, with catalogs covering hardy plants, like perennials, shrubs, and fruit trees, later yet. Essentially, they follow the order of arrival of the material: you need your seeds early to start them indoors, summer bulbs pretty early as well, as many do need a few weeks head start indoors, while hardy plants won’t even be delivered until there is no frost in the air, so they are often not available until early spring.

It used to be that all catalogs were printed and sent out by mail, but nowadays, almost all plant catalogs have a web version. What’s more, given the increasing costs of printing and mailing, every year sees fewer printed catalogs as more and more catalogs are on-line only. Still, printed catalogs are practical. Personally, I make notes in them and highlight interesting varieties. And nothing equals spreading 2 or 3 printed catalogs on a table when it comes to comparing varieties and prices!

Plant and seed catalogs have a long history, dating back to the 18th century. Moreover, until the arrival of garden centers in the 1950s or 1960s, they were often the only source of plants for home gardeners. I remember when fruit trees use to arrive by mail at my father’s farm: small, leafless bare root trees not even wrapped up, but simply delivered loose. with an address label attached to the trunk. They scarcely seemed alive, but believe it or not, they always grew perfectly! Today, however, plants are much better packaged and usually arrive in mint condition. (And if anything is not to your satisfaction, advise the supplier immediately so he can replace it.)

As for ordering seeds, the system has not changed for generations. Unlike live plants, which you have to order within your own country (unless you obtain an import permit from your federal government and a phytosanitary certificate from the supplying nursery… and that greatly increases the cost), you can order seeds anywhere in the world without a special permit. Your seeds will simply arrive in an envelope that contains the different seed packets, similar to the seed packets seen in garden centers, but generally without color pictures.

Also, payment is much easier these days. Previously you had to pay by check or mail in your credit card information, with the complication that if a plant or a seed was out of stock, the supplier would either have to make adjustments and send a reimbursement for part of your order, or offer you credit on future purchases, or send “substitutes” to compensate: not always the plants you wanted. Nowadays, the easiest route is to order online (even if you use a printed catalog for your research, there’ll be a on-line order form you can fill out). No need for calculations on-line: usually if you enter the plant number and name and the quantity required, you’ll get an automatic total. Sure beats filling in a paper form where errors (mostly yours) are so easy to make! And you can pay instantly by credit card or PayPal and usually get a confirmation within minutes, hours at the most. I think what I like best about this compared to mail-in orders is that you know right away if a product is out of stock (the on-line order form will advise you), allowing you to decide whether you want to order it elsewhere.

Many beginning gardeners are surprised to learn that the seeds, plants and tools sold by mail often cost less than those offered in garden centers, even when delivery charges are added on. That’s largely because mail order suppliers don’t need to maintain an expensive store in a heavily taxed commercial zone with dozens of employees. Often they are family businesses run from someone’s spare room or basement, or, at the very least, are way out in the country where taxes are less of a burden! And rather than dying out, the garden catalog business is booming: there has never been so many catalogs or so much choice of plant material!

I’m not going to list catalogs here: there are (1) too many of them and (2) your interests may not be the same as mine. Instead, either ask a gardening friend or your local garden club for a few suggestions of general seed, tool, or plant catalogs… or search on your own on the Web. This is especially interesting if you have a specific group of plants in mind. After all, your favorite local garden center offers maybe 20 different kinds of hosta or 5 or 6 different tomatoes; many on-line suppliers offer 300 or more!

The plant hunting season starts now! Enjoy!

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