Plants By Mail FAQ

Archive-name: gardens/plants-by-mail Posting-Frequency: monthly URL:
The Plants By Mail FAQ
maintained by Joe Robinson since 1995
founded by Peter Leppik
After almost seven years, it is time to pass the Website/USENET FAQ to the next keeper of the flame. Write to Faqsite maintainer, Terry Lea, at from now onward, as she is the keeper of the FAQ.
This document is intended to introduce readers to the world of buying plants by mail order; and also to serve as a central clearinghouse for information about contacting various mail order plant houses. I don't make claims about being more informed on this topic than your average Joe; Peter saw the need and compiled the original file material, and I'm willing to put forth the effort to continue compiling and maintaining this.
Entries to the FAQ websitelist ( ) include a notation of time (season, if not month and year) when last change to a list entry was made. Comments and additions to the FAQ may be made directly directly to Terry at
Note: Sending email to the PBM-FAQ will NOT get you a free catalog. I don't do catalogs. Lately I've been getting a quite a bit of, "Please send me your Park Seed catalog" and the like. This is not what the PBM-FAQ's about. It's about ordering plants by mail, its trials, tribulations and successes.
The version of this FAQ posted to USENET used to include the complete list of catalogs, with addresses and gardener comments. This is no longer done: the catalog comment list outgrew the USENET FAQ. Instead, the catalog lists can be accessed at . If you don't have WWW access, you can send E-mail to, telling Terry which catalogs you want address information for, and perhaps she'll send you those particular entries. At last count, over 800 catalogs are listed on the site.
It seems that one of the most common article titles in rec.gardens is, "How can I reach XYZZY?" or, "The Plugh company sent me a catalog. Are they any good?" I hope to be able to answer some of these questions in a reasonably definitive manner (the first is easy, the second harder), and provide the neophyte with some introduction to buying plants by mail.
My experience in this area has been short, but intense. After finally moving from a small condo into a real house (with a YARD and a GARDEN even!) in 1993, one of my first projects was to begin widespread replanting of the yard (which was mostly boring grass, or very ugly hybrid poplars). To do that, I began ordering large numbers of bulbs and plants from a number of mail-order houses. Some were good, some were bad, and I learned a lot about what to look for and what to avoid.
How To Tell a Good Company from a Bad One (or: Things To Look For Before Taking the Plunge)
If you are like me, you probably have a dozen or two catalogs from various places, some fancy, others plain, and you're wondering who to order from and how to tell the difference between a place that really cares, and a place that is just trying to unload some poor, pathetic bits of green stuff on The Gullible Majority. In this section, I will outline what I think a good mail order company should do, and what you should consider before buying a plant sight-unseen. Keep in mind that this is aimed at the relative neophyte, who needs a little more service than the extremely experienced gardener....there are plenty of companies which provide good plants, but don't offer the level of service than many gardeners need.
What a Good Mail-Order Company Will Do
1. Every perennial in the catalog should have a clearly indicated hardiness range. That is, for every perennial (anything you expect to last more than one year) should have indicated which USDA hardiness zones it will survive in. Simple adjectives like "hardy," or "tender," are NOT sufficient. Perhaps I am biased, being a Minnesota native currently living in Illinois, but I have seen too many catalogs which do not include this crucial information. Without knowing this, it is too easy to buy plants that won't survive in your climate. This also includes those of you who live in places like Southern California, where it never gets cold, since some plants require a period of cold temperatures every year in order to survive/bloom/etc.
2. Every plant should have its botanical (scientific) name listed. Of course, this doesn't count for things like roses or tomatoes, since everybody knows what they are. This may sound picky, but think about it: if you ever want to get information on this plant from some other source, and they use their own name, you might have a devil of a time figuring out how to get information. A plant's botanical name is unique. I have seen places that will take a standard variety of some plant, come up with a flashy (trademarked) name, and sell it as something special. Needless to say, this is dishonest.
2A. More about Trade Marks (It's Only Going to Get Tougher)
This trend toward trademarked plant names is accelerating, and it can only cause problems for the buyer down the road.
Species, variety and cultivar names can not be trade-marked--each is unique to a specific plant. Trademarked names are not so tightly tied up--the plant you might see listed as Flash (tm) in 1997 might not be the same cultivar listed as Flash (tm) in 1998's catalog.
The following scenario is a bit more likely:
You read about a terrific grassplant in GruberPlant, and so order three of Horsetail Wonder (tm) at a premium. Couple of catalogs later, another ornamental grass catches your eye, and so you order a couple Miscanthus 'Red Royal'. From the description, it sounds like it will be a nice accent to the Horsetail Wonder (tm). You sit back, visions of these striking grasses accenting your border garden dancing in your head.
Come March, the parcels arrive. You plant em out, and by September you've noticed they look an awful lot alike. By October you've figured out that you've ordered the same plant from two places. What happened? How can they do that?
Easy. Although the plant patent has expired, giving all growers the ability to sell Miscanthus 'Red Royal', the renewable trademarked name for the plant has not. No one else but GruberPlant can sell it as Horsetail Wonder (tm). And GruberPlant intends to get its money's worth.
Yay for the USDA
Seed catalogs are supposed to list clearly the Registered name and the botanical name, including cultivar name if there is one. That's part of the Seed Act, enforced by the USDA. If you really read your catalogs, you can be fairly certain in your selection.
The same thing is supposed to be true for plants. The Seed Act doesn't cover plants, though. The USDA's jurisdiction over the sale of plants mixes in with the FTC's, through a maze of agencies including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA)/Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS), and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). And the FTC has a lot of other things they consider more important than regulating vague language in plant catalogs. (Thanks to the nameless colleague who walked me through this last bit. I haven't asked for permission to attribute, so they will remain nameless.)
Recently, a Texas-based plant by mail firm wrote to point out that they receive annual inspections by the Texas Department of Agriculture in order to receive what they call a "fire ant stamp." It's an inspection stamp, issued by the USDA, and when you see the stamped imprint on a box, it means the USDA has determined the nursery's quarantined area free from fire ants. (In another part of the country, it means free from some other invasive pest.) So, as implied by the stamp, the USDA does have jursidiction in the sale and transport of plant material....but just try to figure out which branch to contact over the issue of Horsetail Wonder (tm).....
When I *do* figure out who to call on the issue of Horsetail Wonder (tm), I'll update this information.
3. Information on the habitat requirements should be easy to find. By this, I mean answers to questions like, how much sun does it need, how much water, and so forth. Nearly every catalog has this, but if you see one that doesn't, stay away. On the wish list of at least one frequent FAQ visitor: tightening up the distinction between a plant being self-pollinating or merely self-fertile--bees still required.
4. A good company will be able to answer questions about their products. Really, this is basic. If you call them, and ask about something, they should be able to answer your question. If they can only take orders, this is a Bad Sign. (By the way, in many places, you can call your local County Extension office to get information about plants, too.)
Finally, a word about guarantees:
5. Every mail order catalog that I've seen offers some sort of guarantee. This should NOT be a factor in deciding where to buy from. After all, what good does it do if they replace a plant that died because you can't grow oranges in Alaska? The replacement will just die, too, and you'll spend twice as much time on a plant that was Never Meant To Be. Some people have even noted an inverse relation between the quality of the guarantee and the quality of the plants: the louder the company proclaims its "FOOLPROOF 100% MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE," the worse the plants are when they arrive.
What To Consider Before Taking the Plunge
Okay, so you've got your heart set on the beautiful Creeping Green Stuff. Before plunking your money and time on it (usually more time than money), you should stop and ask yourself a few questions:
1. Will it grow in my area? If they don't make it CLEAR (i.e. by telling you the hardiness zone), then avoid that plant, or buy it from somebody who will tell you.
2. Do I have a place to put it? It is very easy to get spring fever when all the catalogs start arriving midwinter, and wind up buying enough plants to cover every square inch of your yard two or three times over. Make sure you have a specific place for each and every plant you order, and make sure you will have the time to plant it when it arrives. Keep in mind that you will probably have to plant them soon after they arrive, and you might not be able to control the exact day they arrive. Thus, ordering 150 bushes for a new hedge from one place, all of which will arrive via UPS on the same day and need to be planted immediately, is probably not a good idea. Believe me. I've done it. Twice. And I'll probably do it again (some people never learn).
3. Will it really look the way I want it to? Keep in mind that the pictures in the catalogs are designed to sell plants, and the plants in your garden will generally not look quite as nice. I have seen a lot of comments from people in rec.gardens about the rose Blue Girl as a particular offender in this respect. Also keep in mind that illustrations (and photographs) can be very deceptive.
What To Do When Your Order Arrives (or: OhMyGawd! There's No DIRT With These Plants!)
The most important thing to do when your order arrives is DON'T PANIC!
Good. Take a few deep breaths.
The reason your roses/trees/whatever arrived without any dirt is not because the company sent you dead plants. Shipping woody plants without dirt ("bare-root") is standard. First, it does not harm the plants much, as long as the company has taken steps to ensure that the roots don't dry out. Usually, this involves dipping the roots in some sort of stuff that helps retain moisture. Second, shipping plants bare-root helps keep shipping costs down. Shipping with dirt could easily double or triple the weight of the plant when shipped, and make it that much more expensive to buy. Finally, shipping plants bare-root helps prevent the spread of pests that live in the soil (like the Japanese beetle). Needless to say, unless you're buying small seedlings, it would be expensive for a company to grow all their stock in greenhouses.
There are a few places which ship plants in pots. Shipping a plant with the dirt will be less traumatic to the plants, and, as a rule, you can expect these plants to be healthier, but, because of shipping expenses, they will often also be much smaller than bare-root plants--and more expensive. Given the option, I will usually buy the plant shipped in a pot, since the quality is often much higher. In addition, there are some plants which have to be shipped in pots, simply because they're too fragile otherwise.
Generally, you will get a little booklet with your order explaining how to plant your new plants. Usually, the first thing to do (with bare root plants) is to stick them in a bucket of water for some time. You should do this as soon as they arrive. Then, dig a hole according to the booklet instructions, and plant those buggers.
It may take some time for your new plants to leaf out, especially if they're dormant when shipped. Again, don't panic. If you planted in the spring, don't call the company to complain that the plants are dead until midsummer. They'll just tell you to wait, because sometimes the plants take a while to adjust to their new surroundings.
Which Catalog To Order From
If you are buying roses, you should certainly order from a catalog which specializes in roses. There are quite a few of these catalogs, and you will generally get better selection, quality, and price than you would from buying from a catalog which doesn't specialize in roses.
For some reason, this rule of thumb seems to be the other way around when buying bulbs. I have had the best experiences buying bulbs from White Flower Farms, which is generally an outstanding catalog, but they aren't even remotely limited to bulbs. My worst experiences, on the other hand, were with places that sell only, or mainly bulbs. Go figure.
Not everybody will agree with my judgments. After much consideration (and several long discussions on the order of "Company X isn't really THAT bad!"), I've decided that the main consideration has to be consistency. That means that I can count on large plants, of a uniformly high quality, every time I order. Note, too, that I haven't yet had anyone take issue with my list of "Good" companies, just the "Bad" ones. Having said that, here is my list of best and worst companies, based primarily on my personal experiences:
Really Good Companies:
White Flower Farms Nor'East Miniature Roses Heirloom Old Garden Roses Gardener's Supply Company Old House Gardens Parks Seeds Shepherd's Garden Seeds Stark Brothers W. Atlee Burpee Co. Van Engelen Bulbs
Companies To Avoid:
Spring Hill Michigan Bulb Co. Breck's Bulbs
Companies That Own Other Companies and Don't Tell You, or: Who Owns What, a hardly comprehensive, yet accurate, collection of Business Relations.
Ball Seed Co. owns W. Atlee Burpee Co, who recently acquired GardenEscape's
Foster Gallagher owns:
Breck's Bulbs Gurney's Michigan Bulb Co. New Holland Bulb Spring Hill Nursery Stark Brothers Vermont Wildflower Farm Not sure about this: The Garden Store
Plantron owns:
Bessers Royal Dutch Gardens Burgess Seed & Plant Co. Interstate (Inter-State) Nurseries Farmers Seed & Nursery Co. Four Seasons Nursery House of Wesley Richard Owen Nurseries, Inc. Owen Nursery and Florist Kelly Nurseries DirectGardening is a division of House of Wesley
Park Seed Co. owns Wayside Gardens
Daffodil Mart is now owned by White Flower Farms, who also owns Shepherd's Seeds.
Garden City Seeds, Irish Eyes with a Hint of Garlic and Greg Anthonys are linked somehow, and one of them has absorbed Ronningers Seed and Potato. Ronninger was last reported developing a separate Heirloom seed company, Ronniger's Organic Farm.
I'm not sure which owns whom in the following relationships:>
SBE (Southern Business Express) appears to be the parent firm --or at least the main supplier-- for Mother Earth Seeds,, World Wide Exotic Seeds, Drysdale Seed Company, The GreenWeb, and Forever In Bloom
Seymour's Selected Seeds and Totally Tomatoes and R.H. Shumway's and Vermont Bean Seed Company
Quality Dutch Bulbs and Netherland Bulb Company
Jung, McLure and Zimmerman, Roots and Rhizomes and Totally Tomatoes. It has been reported that Jung bought TT in 2000.
Advance Seed Co. and Ferry-Morse Seed Co.
Arkansas Berry and Plant Farm and Pense nurseries.
Wildflower Farm and Prairie Nursery.
John Scheepers is the "retail quantity" division of Van Engelen and an affiliate of Schreiner's.
Park Seeds and Cook's Garden.
Gurney's and Henry Field's: same prices for same items, phone numbers use the same area code and prefix, and the mailing labels, including customer numbers, are identical. Robin A. Niles ( reports that this because at one time they were the same firm, and now share almost all of their suppliers, customer lists and pricing while maintaining different production managers and slightly different thoughts about the "best way" to grow and ship items.
The following labors are the result of the efforts of Claude Sweet (
Aaron's Bulb Farm also does business as:     Aaron's Amaryllis & Canna Bulb Farm Nursery     Arron's Flower, Tree, and Shrub Nursery Arron's Nursery with other listings         Aaron's Bamboo Nursery         Aaron's Daffodil Nursery         Aaron's Leucojum, Tuberose, and Eucomis Nursery         Aaron's Allium Nursery         Aaron's Clivia Nursery         Aaron's Agapanthus Nursery         Aaron's Elephant Ear Nursery         Aaron's Ariod Nursery         Aaron's Iris Nursery         Aaron's Ginger Lily Nursery         Aaron's Hymenocallis Nursery         Aaron's Crinum Lily Nursery         Aaron's Banana Tree Nursery         Aaron's Perennial Nursery         Arron's Fruit Nursery             Apple Tree Nursery             Blackberry Nursery             Blueberry Nursery             Fig Tree Nursery             Grape Vine Nursery             Pecan Tree Nursery             Peach Tree Nursery             Persimmon Tree Nursery             Plum Tree Nursery             Citrus Tree Nursery             Pear Tree Nursery The Nursery at TyTy also does business as:     Blackberry Plant Nursery     African Amaryllis Bulb Nursery     Apple Tree Nursery     Bunch and Seedless Grape Vine Nursery     Pecan Tree Nursery     Tree Nursery
A View From the Other Side:
Reputable mailorder plant firms will always try to create happy customers--and the only way they'll ever know (short of reading their firm's customer-submitted evaluations here on the FAQ) is when their customers <I>contact</I> them. From Renee Beaulieu, who handles public relations for White Flower Farm: "We do try to be responsive to customer complaints about White Flower Farm and also about our sister companies, the Daffodil Mart and Shepherd's Garden Seeds. I was sorry to see a customer complaining about Daffodil Mart, but he never called us to make it right! I'm sure that happens a lot, but I wish people would take the time to call."
There are times when a gardener inadvertently makes it difficult for the honest mailorder firm to fulfill an order. Below is an example provided by Ernest Koone, owner of Lazy K, and it's a goof every person who orders by mail should avoid--it's embarrassing:
"I recently received a catalogue request (from my classified ad in Fine Gardening) as follows: "PLEASE SEND ME A PRICE LIST. SINCERELY, RAY". No return address. So, one of these days, you will probably receive an indignant missive from Ray to the effect that I neglected to respond to his request for a price list. You can't win 'em all!!"
But Before We Go....
I hope this FAQ has been useful. I also hope it has been accurate. If you find any mistakes, or have any comments, please send me E-mail. Any suggestions for improving future editions will be happily accepted, and possibly even acted upon.
Please send all suggestions, comments, corrections, and so forth to The Plants By Mail FAQ.
For the full listing of catalogs, with comments, see the WWW version of this FAQ at . If you don't have WWW access, send E-mail to me ( listing which companies you want more information on, and I'll send you what we've listed for them.
If you wish to comment on your favorite (or least favorite) mail-order catalog:
Any and all comments are welcome. Send them to The Plants By Mail FAQ. If there is some catalog not covered which you think should be, by all means, write. If you've got the mailing address or telephone number, include it with the rest of your comments. If you do send comments, PLEASE please respect our poor, overworked mailers. People have resent the entire FAQ just for a few lines of comments, and one person sent a bunch of UUencoded binary pictures! Needless to say, this doesn't help much, and it wastes disk space. That send comments, because they do help. What you know will help others!
I assume that, if you send comments, you don't mind if they find their way the website, in some form. Thus, if you DON'T want your name and email address in a future edition of the FAQ, be sure to say so.
In order to see the full version, the PBM-FAQ and the accompanying catalog list, you need to go to the WWW version of this FAQ, at . If you don't have WWW access, send E-mail to ( listing which companies you want more information about, and I'll send you what we have listed.
Disclaimer (short version):
All opinions in this FAQ are the opinions of the FAQ authors unless otherwise noted.
Emailed comments and opinions of mail-order firms, good and bad, are those of their submitting authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the FAQ authors.
Regarding Comments of An Unpleasant Nature: Once in a while we get requests to remove remarks from the FAQ, usually from a mail order company representative who, for whatever reason, does not agree with comments on the FAQ about their firm.
The PBM-FAQ posts public comments without editing, other than to remove material that is not a comment about a company. Such editing includes removing requests for additional information about a specific plant, etc.
The PBM-FAQ website will not remove comments unless they are grossly outdated or unless the original writer has asked that they be removed. To do otherwise defeats the impartiality of the Plants-By-Mail FAQ.
Mail-order firms are invited to respond to comments which they might believe unfairly represents them. These comments will be posted to the PBM-FAQ website under the same guidelines as outlined above.
Frankly, the most effective comment a mail-order firm may post is, "We contacted Mr./Ms. Gardening Person, and took care of their problem."
Please make sure you visit the disclaimer page for the FAQ catalog listings when you visit the PBM-FAQ web pages. The complete disclaimer's not included in this version of the FAQ to save space. *That* should give you a clue.....
History (includes web site updates and faq-tweaks): Updated: January 20, 27, 2002. Changes to 65 pages, 5 additions. Updated: November 22, 23, 30, 2001. Changes to 79 pages, 2 additions. Updated: September 3, 4, 9, 11, 16, 17, 20, 2001. Changes to 87 pages, 13 additions. Updated: September 3, 2001. The Rose FAQ is loaded onto the PBM-FAQ site (finally!) Updated: August 11, 19, 22, 23, 31, 2001. Changes and updates to 118 pages, 15 additions. Updated: July 4, 6, 8, 16, 21, 28, 2001. Changes and updates to 57 pages, 6 additions. Updated: June 5, 16, 20, 21, 2001. Changes and updates to 43 pages, 5 additions. FAQ assumes Karen Baldwin's live roses mail order FAQ, May 5, 2001. Updated: May 3, 4, 6, 16, 18, 21, 29, 30, 2001. Changes and updates to 156 pages, 10 additions. Updated: April 1, 3, 13, 15, 23, 29, 30, 2001. Changes and updates to 112 pages, 8 additions. Updated: March 11, 13, 16, 19, 23, 30, 2001. Changes and updates to 101 pages, 6 additions. Updated: February 3,4, 11, 25, 28, 2001. Changes and updates to 97 pages, 13 additions. Updated: January 27, 20, 19, 2001. Changes and updates to 187 pages, 13 additions. Updated: January 3, 8, 18, 2001. Changes and updates to 197 pages, 12 additions. Updated: December, 2000. Changes and updates to 295 pages, 16 additions. Updated: 11/23/00. Running 5 months behind in commentpostings, striving to be current by winter catalog season! Updated: 6/30, 6/13, 6/8/00. Changes and updates to 81 pages, 8 additions. Updated: 5/27, 5/26, 5/23, 5/10/00. Changes and updates to 56 pages, 9 additions Updated: 4/30, 4/26, 4/25/, 4/23/00. Changes and updates to 106 pages, 15 additions Updated: 3/20, 3/26/00. Changes and updates to 76 pages, 6 additions Updated: 1/16, 1/18/00 Changes and updates to 40 pages, 9 additions Updated: 12/30, 12/31/99. Changes and updates to 78 pages, 11 additions Updated: 9/5, 9/12, 9/23, 9/28/99 includes changes to 76 pages and 10 additions Updated: 8/4, 8/22/99 includes changes to 53 pages and 2 additions Updated: 7/4, 7/16, 7/29/99 includes changes to 47 pages and 5 additions Updated: 6/5,6/30/99 includes changes to 62 pages and 3 additions; association with (books and videos) begins Updated: 5/21/99 Updated: 3/4, 3/9/99 includes changes to 38 pages and 2 additions Updated: 2/13/99 includes changes to 19 pages and 1 addition Updated: 1/14, 1/19, 1/21/99, 1/31/99 includes changes to 38 pages and 7 additions Updated: 12/16/98, 12/31/98--includes changes to 57 pages and 11 additions Updated: 11/7, 11/15, 11/23/98--includes 7 additions and changes to 72 pages Updated: 10/16, 10/28, 10/31/98--includes 14 additions and changes to 90 pages Updated: 9/13/98--includes changes to 51 pages Updated: 8/20/98--includes changes to 72 pages Updated: 7/26/98 Updated: 6/30/98--includes changes to 40 pages Updated: 6/14/98--includes changes to 45 pages Updated: 5/23/98 Updated: 4/3/98, 4/21/98--includes changes to 63 pages through Winter 1998. Updated: 12/8/97 Updated: 11/19/97 Updated: 10/12/97 Updated: 7/6/97 Updated: 6/26/97 Faq site moves to new host and spends 2 weeks offline. Updated: 5/16/97 Updated: 3/29/97 (12 catalog pages updated or added. FAQ moves to new host) Updated: 1/3/97-2/23/97 (30 catalog pages updated or added. Update dates now tracked instead of replaced on each page.) Updated: 11/12/96-12/30/96 (96 catalog pages updated or added.) Updated: 8/25/96 - 9/30/96 (153 entries added to 75 catalog pages.) Updated: 8/16/96 - 8/24/96 (57 catalog pages updated or added.) Updated: 8/15/96 (FAQ moves to new host) Updated: 7/5/96 (Leppik announces his main web site is closing) Updated: 5/29/96 (49 catalog pages updated or added.) Updated: 3/29/96 Updated: 2/29/96 Updated: 2/10/96 Updated: 2/4/96 Updated: 1/22/96 Updated: 12/28/95 Updated: 11/18/95 (81 catalog pages updated or added.) Robinson takes on the FAQ. Updated: 4/11/95 Updated: 2/22/95 Updated: 1/22/95 Updated: 7/12/94 Updated: 4/30/94 Originally Created: 3/17/94 (late at night)
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