Can you tell me how to evaluate whether a mail-order catalog company is reputable? Also, how do I know what’s better to order as a plant versus seed, and what’s better to buy from a catalog versus a garden center?
Eda Caldwell, Grand Rapids, MI
Photo/Illustration: Melissa Lucas
Alan Charest, a master gardener who has been gardening in Kitchener, Ontario, for more than 20 years, responds: To know if a company is reputable, ask around. Gardeners who have dealt with a particular firm will be able to tell you what they think and what their experience has been. The best way to judge a catalog is to look up in several different catalogs a plant you know well. You can learn a lot about companies by how much information they provide, how accurate it is, and how the prices compare.
As a rule of thumb, companies that sell products at a great discount do not offer high quality. The plants they send are often much smaller than you would expect. Some upscale catalogs offer exclusive and hard-to-find seeds or plants for which you may want to pay extra money. If what you are looking for is easy to find, however, why pay three times what the competition is asking?
Perennials are more often bought as plants. But when deciding whether to buy plants or seeds, quantity should influence your decision. If you need a large number of plants and are not in a hurry, it might be preferable to start from seed, even if it is more complex, or to buy a few plants to divide. However, some perennials—peonies, for instance—are not usually grown from seed because they do not come true from seed or take too long to reach blooming time. These you buy as plants either at a nursery or garden center (or by catalog if you cannot find them locally). It is up to you to make sure the plants you buy from a faraway place are hardy in your area.
For annuals, check how much time it takes for a plant to go from seed to bloom. At home, without specialized equipment, it is not usually easy to start tender annuals that have to grow for months before blooming, such as petunias (Petunia cvs.) or geraniums (Pelargonium cvs.). Hardier annuals such as nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp. and cvs.) or marigolds (Tagetes spp. and cvs.) are much better seeded than bought as plants. They can be grown where you want them to bloom, their growth will not be checked by the shock of transplanting, and you will save money. For the same reason, biennials, such as foxgloves (Digitalis spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) or Canterbury bells (Campanula medium and cvs., Zones 5–8), are better started from seed. In my experience, there is not much difference between bulbs bought locally or from catalogs.
In general, it is preferable to buy plants locally: You can see what you are getting, the plant is normally much larger, and it doesn’t tend to suffer in transportation. Buy from a catalog when what is being offered is not available locally or because you are getting a real bargain.