Weeding through my catalogs


It took me several decades to trust buying plants via mail order after my first experience. 


When I was eleven, I ran across a picture of a majestic row of lombardy poplars in the back of some magazine, which could be ordered to grace one’s property at an unbelievably low price.  I decided this was just the thing needed to enhance the road frontage along my family’s property.  Why an eleven year old would have decided this for his parents and grandparents is another story.   Happily by this point, the adults in my life were indulgent of my “frivolous whims”, and when I pleaded the necessity of a poplar row, they assented.  As long as I paid for them, that was.  The initial amazingly cheap price, when compounded with shipping and handling charges necessitated a loan against future allowances and babysitting fees, but I knew it would be worth it.  If not merely for unexpected joy that would befall those driving along Route 7 in Oneonta, thinking they had somehow taken a wrong turn and been transported into a Tuscan landscape (albeit with vinyl sided houses and trailers in place of sun baked stucco villas and olive groves), how could it not help the property value?   Bolstered by such irrefutable logic, loan terms were arranged, a trip to the post office with my Grandmother was a made to obtain a money order and postage, and I duly mailed off the order.   I would eagerly check the mail every day once the requisite 4 to 6 weeks had arrived, waiting for the notice that my huge crate of majestic poplars was at the Post Office.  Would I need a truck to get them, what about a backhoe to dig the holes, not to mention a crane to lower the trees into them?  I decided not to burden my family with those details until the trees arrived. 


 The disappointment I felt when the medium sized cardboard showed up on my grandparents doorstep was only surpassed by sight of the two-dozen eight inch long sticks that came in it.  How was I supposed to grow a majestic row of trees out of these?   At least the holes were easy to dig.   One important lesson I learned that year was that some sticks need a little attention to grow into trees.  As a result, only 5 of the 24 grew tall enough to be mowed down the next summer by the highway crew (I hadn’t thought about how New York State’s right of way laws would interfere with my Tuscan landscaping dreams), but I digress.


When I began gardening at my own home in the late 90’s I was a bit (understandably, from that traumatic first experience) of mail order plants.  I began hesitantly, ordering plants here and there that I couldn’t find at the local nurseries.   With time and confidence, I became a regular plant and bulb mail order customer.  I have learned that you actually can order things that will grow (although even as an adult I once lost a row of small Norwegian Spruce planted on the state’s right of way), and when planting bulbs on a large scale, mail order is the only affordable option.  One of the joys of late winter for me is looking through the various plant and garden catalog that arrive on a weekly basis. 


Back in the 90‘s, it seemed as if once you ordered from one catalog and were immediately placed on a mailing list for thirty more.   The variety and choice I received each season was staggering. I was also some marketing guru’s dream, a sucker for nice paper stock and handsome photography.  The cheesy photos and tissue paper weight of the bargain basement catalogs were shunned in favor of the decidedly upscale (at least for me) look and feel of the White Flower Farm and Cricket Hill Farm catalogs. However with the nations (and my own) economic downturn of recent years, I have re-looked at both the amount I order and the prices I am able to spend on plants.   I have been amazed at the speed and sophistication with which the plant, seed and nursery companies obtain your shopping habits.   I was dropped off mailing lists one by one as my income level, and spending patterns declined.  My solace is that at the very least, the number of trees being saved is significant. Even at my current modest spending level, over a dozen mail order companies consider me at least a potential if not good customer and I regularly receive their catalogs.   The majority I receive come from solid, good value companies. Most of them inevitably contain some derivation of the words “Dutch”, “Holland” or “Netherlands” which can become a bit confusing, but I a fine with that.  Whatever trials and tribulations the country has had to go through through, it’s nice that its brand identity in the world of bulbs and gardening endures.


In years past, when catalogs first arrived, I would eagerly devour the first one, flagging a dozen or so pages that contained plants I wanted with post-its.  The next would arrive and I would do the same.  Then a third, and fourth would arrive, and on, and on, sometimes multiple arrivals on the same day.  By late February/early March, when I was ready to order, I would be thoroughly confused.  I would have over 100 pages flagged in various catalogs.  What did I want on that page?  Did I flag that plant in another one, or five already?  If I did, does the picture look nicer in this catalog, then the one I tagged in the others?  Or should I go by price?  If they charge more, does that mean it is a better product, or is a plant a plant?   It could all be a bit daunting.



Now I have a (slightly better) system down.  I still tab pages with post-its, but on the part that hangs outside the page I write the name and price of the plant that I liked on it.  Then I make a list from each catalog of everything I have flagged, highlighting the repeated plants from each company.  I throw out the lowest priced figuring the prices are too good to be trusted, and the highest priced as needlessly extravagant.  Then I calculate if the money saved by ordering from the different companies would be negated by the multiple shipping costs and consolidate as necessary.  I then order, usually online, sometimes via phone et, voila!  I still have trouble remembering from year to year whose plants and bulbs I was happy with and whose I wasn’t, and whether the relative savings in price are worth it, so this year I have decided to try something a little different from the norm. I will order similar items from a couple of different sources.  I will endeavor to keep a record of what state the plants arrived in, what I planted where, and the results, hopefully being able to become a brand loyal customer in the future (I am still some marketing guru’s dream).  I am also deviating from my norm this year by ordering a couple of items that seem “impossibly cheap”, and see how they fare, and maybe one from the most expensive category. 


Although, never a lombardy poplar, ever again!

Flirt with disaster, or heed the online forum??