If you are accustomed to going to your local garden center or big box store for plants, buying them from a mail order source may seem to be more fuss than it's worth. But you might want to rethink that, because there are two good reasons to buy plants through the mail: selection and price. So take another look before you toss that plant catalog in the recycling bin.
For finding exactly the plant you want, in the color, height, or cultural conditions you need, mail order is the only way to go. Garden centers and retail stores just can't stock that many varieties, so they load up on the most common, or most popular plants. But perhaps you don't want the pink phlox or variegated hosta that everyone else is growing. Mail order nurseries often specialize, so you can find the specific hydrangea or coneflower you fell in love with in a magazine or online.
The prices for mail order plants are usually less than what a bricks and mortar nursery charges, though a rare or difficult to germinate plant may be expensive. The reason mail order plants are cheaper is because they are smaller than what you'll usually find at a garden center, often much smaller. This is because big plants are more difficult and expensive to ship, and small plants – though not tiny ones – make the transition to the garden better than larger ones.
What to Look For Before Ordering
Know what USDA Plant Hardiness Zone your garden is in. Are the plants you are choosing hardy in your zone? Sometimes you can get away with a plant that is hardy one zone higher than yours if you plant it in a warmer spot, or give it winter protection.
Be sure the plant will grow in the soil/light/moisture conditions of your garden.
If a nursery is sold out of a plant, they may substitute a similar one unless you tell them not to.
Check how the plant will be wrapped and shipped, so you'll know if something isn't right when you open the box.
Make sure you understand what the company's return policy is. Some will replace plants for almost any reason, including if it dies once in the ground; others can be much more strict, and limit replacements/refunds only if they are clearly in error.
Understand the size of the plant you are getting, and how long it will take to reach maturity. Really small plants, sometimes called plugs, can be a terrific bargain, but often need a year or two growing in pots before they are big enough to survive the tougher conditions of the garden.
Since plants are perishable and can't sit indefinitely in a box, most mail order nurseries will give you an idea of when your plants will arrive. Nurseries also take frost dates into consideration. Many won't ship until it's warm enough in your area. Really good nurseries will even work with you on shipping dates, so your plants don't arrive while you are away or at a time when you are too busy to plant them.
When Plants Arrive
When plants arrive, open the box immediately and inspect the condition of your order. If anything looks wrong, such as damage or a plant out of its pot with exposed roots, take a photo and let the nursery know right away. Damage to stems and leaves, and soil getting knocked off roots while in transit is always possible, and the nursery should make good if the plant isn't likely to recover.
Most nurseries treat plants for pests and diseases before shipping. (If the plant is being shipped from outside the US, it's mandatory.) In the unlikely event a plant appears diseased or worse, has insects, isolate the entire shipment from any other plants, take photos and let the nursery know that same day. A reputable nursery will never knowingly sell diseased or insect-ridden plants and should replace your entire order.
Water your new plants if they look like they need it. They should be kept in a bright but cool spot out of direct sunlight for a day or two, so they can acclimate to their new environment. Spending as much as a week in a dark box can stress plants, so they need some recovery time before going into the ground.
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