Gardening by Mail Order

By: Julie Day
Lavender flowers blooming.

Lavender seeds for your garden can be ordered online or through catalogs.

Come wintertime, we gardeners are pretty tired. We’ve pruned, planted, winterized, fertilized, mowed, and stowed. We’ve cleaned up and cleaned out, hauled this and composted that, brought plants in and thrown plants out, and while we’d never admit it, we’re kind of glad to see the garden tucked in for a nice winter’s nap.

Truth be told, many of us enjoy the shift indoors for the winter – we finally get our fingernails clean and our backs straight, and a bit of time stretches out where there’s nothing to do but relax. But then, sometime after the New Year, it happens. An undeniable itch begins to develop, and despite our welcome rest, we find ourselves looking forward to getting our hands dirty again.

1960 Sears Garden Book mail order catalog.

Mail order catalogs have inspired farmers and gardeners for over 150 years.

Advantages of Shopping by Mail

This itch is the reason why January is National Mail Order Gardening Month. In January, the mail order catalogs begin to arrive in earnest, with promises of the biggest blooms, the rarest varieties, and the award-winningest pedigrees.

If you’ve never checked out a gardening catalog, it’s well worth the time, and it can open you up to a whole world of possibilities. With a quick phone call or a few clicks of the mouse, you can place enough orders to keep you digging for the entire year.

Ordering plants through online or catalog sources can have some great advantages:

  • Searchable plant databases and detailed information allow you to find just the right plants for your needs.
  • Design help through award-winning plant collections and preplanned gardens.
  • The wisdom of experienced plant and seed growers, who kindly ship plants at the correct planting time for your region, complete with instructions.
Pink peony flowers

Wayside Gardens specializes in unusual varieties, like these peonies.

Preparing Your Order: The Designer’s Dream

Looking to plant a butterfly garden? How about daylilies named after your children? Or antique roses? Before you start, be sure to draw out a garden design, so that the plants you order will have a proper home. Spreading out the plant catalogs and drawing up a landscape design is one of winter’s gardening pleasures.

Be sure to include the sun exposure, water and drainage conditions, soil type, and planting zones in your design. Make sure you understand the care requirements of each plant you order, and when possible, choose plants that are native or well adapted to your climate, especially if your region is prone to drought.

Choosing a Reputable Grower

There are countless mail order plant growers out there, and some are more reliable than others. Do a little research to make sure you’re ordering from a reputable company. Before you order, check out:

Mail order catalogs

Flowering clematis with purple blossoms.

Jackson & Perkins is known for roses but also have other plants, like this clematis.

Ordering Plants by Mail

  • Shrubs, trees, and vines may be shipped “bare root” (without soil) or in small containers. This depends on the type of plant, how it transplants best, and interstate shipping restrictions. Most will be dormant and will look quite bare or even have dead foliage – this is normal. Dormant plants are much more easily transplanted.
  • Perennials will likely be dormant also, and they may have no top growth whatsoever. Have faith that the roots are alive and well!
  • Bulbs will usually be dried and may or may not have packing material.
  • Seeds should be dried and packaged.
  • Green or growing plants are the most vulnerable to damage and shock and should be handled with extra care.
Spring Hill Nurseries gardening catalog.

Spring Hill Nurseries has been going strong since 1849.

Mail Order Tips

  • Be prepared: Your plants will need to go in the ground as soon as possible after they arrive, so prepare the planting site in advance. Have mulch handy, as well as any amendments or fertilizers your might need.
  • Order everything you need: Save time and energy by ordering recommended fertilizers, stakes or supports, plant labels, or decorative containers along with your plants.
  • Read the fine print: Because most mail order plants are dormant, you won’t know if it’s healthy until the growing season begins. Make sure you understand the grower’s guarantee or return policy.
  • Open immediately: Never leave your shipped plants unopened in the package. Open them immediately for air circulation, and place in a protected and shady spot until you can plant them. Follow all enclosed instructions regarding temporary care, watering, soaking, and planting.
  • Practice patience: The photographs in catalogs highlight mature plants at peak bloom. Your plant may take up to 2-3 years to reach maturity, and most perennials will not bloom the first year.
  • Consider availability: Substitutions are common practice if a plant is sold out. If you don’t want a substitution, be sure to state it clearly on your order. Order early to ensure availability – your plant won’t be shipped until the proper planting time.
Flowering crape myrtle.

Shrubs, like this flowering crape myrtle, can also be ordered by catalog.

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2 Comments on “Gardening by Mail Order”

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  • Official Comment:


    Ben Erickson Says:
    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Hi Michele,
    I added the names of the flowers and shrubs shown in the article above. Hope that helps!



  • michele Says:
    May 2nd, 2013 at 12:14 am

    You are showing a photo of a beautiful purple flowering tree, but you are not giving details of it or even a name.
    I would love to have this tree in my garden. What is the name of that tree and would it grow in South Florida?


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