Five Tips for Mail Order Plants

In January and February, just when gardeners are the most color-starved, our snail mail and email boxes begin filling up with catalogs displaying beautiful flowers and foliage that urge us to get our credit cards and buy, buy, buy! While this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with some information before you commit to your purchase.

Here are five tips to make sure the plants you buy will be as beautiful in your real garden as they are in your imagined one.

Consider the advantages.

Ordering bare root trees, shrubs and perennials saves money if you don’t need mature plants or if you want a large number of plants. Growing plants from seeds is also a penny-saver. For the price of a single six pack of annuals, you can purchase enough seeds to grow dozens of plants.

Stay rooted in reality.

Don’t get swept away and order one of everything you see. Make a plan of what you want and where you will plant it. It’s not as thrilling as purchasing what catches your eye, but if you make a list of the colors, heights and types of plants you’re looking for, the end result will be a cohesive design rather than a botanical hodgepodge. Of course, it’s also good to live a little so budget for a few whims.

Read the fine print.

Take time to read the description of the plant’s growing requirements. Make sure they match your garden’s light, water and soil conditions. USDA hardiness zones should be checked on perennials, trees and shrubs.

Garden thug or just what you are looking for?

A plant described as a “vigorous grower” or “spreads quickly” might be ideal if you are looking for a fast-growing ground cover. Be careful, though, because plants with these qualities may become invasive garden thugs. Also note words such as “hardy volunteer”, and “naturalizes”, as these plants may colonize, spread or self-sow. (Again, those characteristics may be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on what you are looking for.)

Look for improved plant varieties.

Plant breeders have developed varieties with unique characteristics that make them easier to grow. Now you can find perennials that will flower the first year even when started from seeds. Self-cleaning annuals don’t require deadheading to remove spent flowers and self-branching plants don’t need to be pinched back to keep a bushy
form. Some plants are bred to be disease- or insect-resistant so you don’t have to worry about pest and disease control.

Understand garden collections.

Some catalogs offer ready-made garden designs that have the included plants available as a collection. Be aware that these borders are often planned so different plants in the collection will flower at different times, giving you multiple seasons of color. Don’t expect everything to bloom at once as some illustrations of these collections imply. If it’s non-stop color you’re after, look for a garden collection that incorporates mainly annuals, which will bloom all growing season. Before you purchase any type of pre-planned garden, make sure the size of the garden plan is close to the size of your planting site so you can be sure you’re buying the right number of plants.