I am a sucker for Dinnerplate Dahlias, which deliver some of the biggest bang for your buck in the fall garden. Unless, that is, you forget to dig up the tubers (or are they rhizomes?) before winter comes. I can’t remember if I forgot to do it, or simply threw out the boxes I had put them in during a particularly spirited midwinter cleaning of my basement. Whatever the cause of their absence in my garden last year, I wanted to replace them. I also wanted to grow some more gladiolus, which are an old favorite of mine from childhood. I always associate them with weekend drives in the country, where farmers would sell home grown gladiolus in buckets in front of their houses. In the back of my head, I envisioned turning the two acres in back of my barn into a gladiolus farm, but let me try growing them on a small scale first. Aside from that, I needed to replenish my casa blanca lilies in front of the house. I was going to visit a friend in Savannah later in the month, and thought some black magic elephant ears would go well in his back garden.
After a hard look at my bank account and my budget, I decided to order from 4 of the cheapest priced catalogs this year. I took a look at a catalog that usually goes immediately Interstate Nurseries (amazingly cheap prices, but also cheap pictures and paper stock). It reminds me a little of the company that sold me those Lombardy poplars.
Royal Dutch Gardens was next. It featured nicer photography,and glossy paper stock, but was in line with Interstate in terms of pricing.
The third was Van Bourgondien (if the company’s name didn’t contain the words “Holland” or “Netherlands”, at least the name had a nice dutch ring to it). Their prices were a little higher than the first two, but I had ordered from them before, with fairly good results, as far as I could remember. The last catalog was definitely the most reminiscent in feel as other ones I had ordered from in the past. Dutch Gardens. Heavier paper stock, nicer photography, and perfect binding made it feel like their higher but not expensive prices were worth every penny. Then I noticed it was located in Bloomington Illinois, right down the road from Royal Dutch nurseries. This gave me pause. Was Bloomington the epicenter of nursery companies? Where Dutch Gardens and Royal Dutch Gardens bitter rivals, founded by former friends or feuding family members who were trying to one up each other, or where they two companies with the same owner, who charged you more from ordering one catalog and not the other, to appeal to more gardeners?
Since I didn’t know what to go on other than the look and feel of the catalogs, I decided to check online to see if there was a good site for reviewing mail order companies. I almost immediately stumbled upon a site called Dave’s Garden. Amazing resource! There was a section called “The Garden Watchdog”, where members of the gardening community would review mail order companies and their experiences with them. The 30 currently top rated companies were featured in a special section. I looked. None of mine were there. I then looked them up individually. Three of the four had overwhelmingly negative reviews, and the fourth, it was reported, had filed for bankruptcy protection! I turns out Royal Dutch Gardens, and Dutch Gardens, are part of the same conglomerate factory (Burgess Seed), and Interstate was part of the same parent group as well.. I don’t know anything specific about Burgess Seed Company, but based on the comments posted it sounds like the Walmart of garden catalog companies (with worse benefits and customer service). Wow, I picked all the winners! In keeping consistent with my history of being offered good advice, I chose to ignore it. After all this was a quasi experiment, and the plants I needed were fairly foolproof. Critics and voices of reason be damned. I would order dinnerplate dahlias and gladiolus from each source, and casa blanca lilies from two (the other two didn’t offer them). This would be perfect for what I was attempting to do. If the plants failed, then I would not be out so much money, and if they thrived, or, well, let’s say got along ok, then I wouldn’t be out so much money either. A win-win for me, or so it appears. That left just the black magic ear plants for my friend in Savannah.
Since they are for a friend, I would leave less to chance and rely on the judgment of my fellow gardeners. Off I go to troll the Watchdog Thirty for Caladium!