Buying perennials through mailorder

Buying through mail-order can be very convenient. You can shop from a catalog or on a Web site in the dead of winter or in the middle of the night in your jammies. Also, you can spend plenty of time thinking over your plans. After all, mail-order companies often carry a broader range of varieties than local providers do. And after you order your plants, you get them delivered to your door at the right time to be planted — all without standing in line!

Just make sure you pick out a company that's been in business for a while, that's able to answer your phone or e-mail questions, and that your gardening friends have had good experiences with. You can start your search with some of the companies I list in the Appendix.

The following sections outline how the plants may look after their trip. Or you can check out "Preparing for the actual planting" for info on how to treat the plants after they arrive.

Potted plants, ready for action

Some mail-order nurseries ship small perennials in small pots. If you get a live-plant shipment, open it immediately upon arrival, even if you're not going to plant anything that very day. Inspect the plants as I describe in the preceding section, and quarantine any plants of questionable quality. Call the nursery immediately if you see a problem so you can work out a refund, merchandise credit, or replacement.

Small potted plants aren't necessarily baby perennials. Such young plants take too long to grow, and mail-order nurseries want you to jump right in and enjoy your garden. So the small plants nurseries ship out tend to be 2-year-old, field-grown plants that have simply had a "haircut" of the top growth prior to shipping. A good, strong root system is just what you want. Don't worry: Fresh, new top growth will soon follow!

Their roots are showing: Dormant, bareroot perennials

Bareroot perennials are the typical mail-order product. Selling perennials this way is simply more practical for some plants for a variety of reasons. For instance, baby's breath and baptisia have root systems that are sensitive to being moved in and out of the ground and various pots too many times. Other perennials, like daylilies and peonies, have large roots systems that don't fit well in smaller pots. These bareroot plants are also dormant and lightweight, which makes shipping cheaper and less risky.

Like potted mail-order plants, bareroot ones are usually 2-year-old, field-harvested plants. They were probably dug up the previous fall, just as they became dormant, and kept in climate-controlled cold storage until spring-shipping season. Bareroot plants consist of a hearty root system and some trimmed-down stems; little or no leaf growth should be evident.

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