Some thoughts on mail order nurseries

It is winter in Tokyo. Warmer and drier than I had expected and the late camellias are still blooming, but the last leaves of a late starting autumn have fallen. The landscape contractors are out in force through the city to sweep up the leaves and start early winter pruning the thousands of immaculate trees and shrubs that break up the concrete canyons.

It is also the time of year to start thinking about spring planting and use the cool days to trawl through books and websites in search of that elusive “exactly right” plant, which in turn leads to trying to find how to obtain one. For me that typically involves at least some mail order shopping as I tend to want obscure things not usually carried in the local garden center.

Buying plants is slightly different from most mail order shopping in that the buyer has to trust the seller much more than is usually the case when buying another item as there are few brands or standards involved. If I were to purchase a camera, for example, I can be fairly comfortable that a Cannon SX230 HS purchased from retailer A is the same as one purchased from retailer B or retailer C, and the selection comes down to price, shipping options, return policy, etc..

When it comes to plants, though, buying a “Climbing Blaze” rose is not nearly as straightforward. As far as I am aware, all of the US states have regulations that plants being offered for sale must be free of pests and disease, but beyond that the floodgates are open. One retailer will advertise “large field grown plants” and mean thick, well hardened, dormant canes with strong buds and a good root structure, while another will have that same advertisement and mean a bramble of long, thin watersprout canes and a minimum of roots. Then there is the matter of shipping and handling – will the plants (assumed to be bareroot) be individually wrapped with the roots properly moistened and protected and shipped in a protective packaging, or will they be jumbled together with no protection? What about the shipping times – does the retailer try and ship the plants at the best time for both transit to and planting at your location, or do they just shove them out at their convenience? Are they actively involved with the plants, or are they simply a front-end for other suppliers? Do they offer (and honor) a guarantee that the plants will grow, or do they consider their end of the transaction to be completely finished when they put the plants out for shipment regardless of plant health on arrival?

Without experience it is difficult to know what you will end up with, and if you only purchase a few plants every few years that experience is hard to come by. Online forums and review sites can be helpful, but they tend to focus on the extremes – particularly those people who have been angered by their experiences are likely to write a review – so they are only of limited utility. It’s always good to research, but at some point you just have to jump in with your eyes open.

I have used 4 mail order suppliers for the Orchyard. One (St. Francois Vineyards) was pretty much unknown in the reviews but was one of the few sources for the grapevines I wanted in limited quantities, and the process worked as intended – I ordered, the vines came, and all was good. One (Big Horse Creek Farm) was more or less unknown outside of a small circle of dedicated heirloom apple enthusiasts and turned out to be excellent on all fronts. One (The Nursery at TyTy) had predominantly poor reviews, but they were the only source of what I wanted and, a season on, the quince and pear trees I bought from them have done well. One (Direct Gardening.com) had mixed reviews, and my luck with the order was bad – but the package being torn in transit, it being delivered on an abnormally late freezing day right after leaving for a mini-vacation, and a flooded spring followed by a summer drought cannot be completely attributed to them.

Would I order from them again? St. Francois Vineyards – probably, but between deer and raccoons I have decided that I need to focus on plants that fruit a bit further off the ground. Big Horse Creek Farm – certainly. The other two would depend heavily on the situation, with the majority of the decision given to the actual plants rather than other factors. The Nursery at TyTy is located in southern Georgia, and while they do offer quite a few plants that will grow in my zone that are not easy to find elsewhere, their focus is on plants for warmer climates and their dormancy period starts late and ends early for my planting purposes. DirectGardening.com is in the right climate but their focus seems to be on providing young plants that you probably could find 75% of at your local garden center, though instead of getting the garden center’s leafed out plant in a 6 inch pot ready to drop into the landcape (which you should rarely, if ever, expect to get from a mail order nursery) you get the small bareroot transplant that was put into that pot a growing season or two earlier – at substantially lower price.

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