Buying Perennials: Mail Order Plants or Buy Local?

by dustytoes

A look at the pros and cons of purchasing plants through mail order as opposed to buying local.

Spring is Coming, Time to Plan a Garden!

Where will your new plants and shrubs come from?

Right after Christmas I begin to receive magazines from all the mail order gardening centers.  If you live in a colder climate, I bet you do too. 

They remind us that Spring is not far away and it's time to begin thinking about what lies beneath the four feet of snow in the yard - or should I say - what doesn't! 

They tempt us with picutures of beautiful flowering shrubs, fruit trees loaded with berries, apples and peaches, and bunches of flowering greenery to decorate our yards. 

They know exactly when to hit us with daydreams of dirty hands and bright bouquets, but should we buy from a mail order company or be satisfied to wait until the local businesses offer us Spring perennials?

The Pros and Cons of Mail Order

Don't write it off until you understand there are some good reasons to use mail order.

Good reasons to place an order from an online company:

  1. Variety.  Unless you love spending your Spring traveling the countryside in search of that special variety of something that you hope to find somewhere, ordering online means finding unusual, new plants for your landscape.
  2. Buying out of season, or getting a jump on the upcoming season.  When local nurseries and farm stands are closing down for the winter, you can still purchase through mail order.
  3. Buy a plant gift for a fellow gardener to be shipped to them.
  4. Price.  Some companies will make combined offers or give discounts for bulk ordering that you won't find at local companies.

Consider the problems you may encounter with mail order:

  1. They ship when they are ready - not when you are.
  2. Small size of plants shipped.
  3. Some shrubs, such as bare-root, must be planted immediately.
  4. Price.  Shrubs in season can most likely be purchased locally for less money.
  5. Buying sight unseen.  Until the plant arrives you won't know what to expect and you could be greatly disappointed in what actually arrives on your doorstep and then what?
  6. Until or unless you find a company you like, you are taking a chance with the order.

My Little Mail Order Hydrangea Plant

The company shipped it when they were ready.

I like the idea of finding a variety of plant that I ordinarily would not have in my yard unless I mail ordered it. I recently moved and wanted a hydrangea plant for my yard, but there were non left at the local nurseries in the Fall, so I mail ordered the one in this picture.  It's small, but I know that hydrangeas grow fast so I'm hopeful that within a year or two it will be blooming.

What made me unhappy was the fact that I couldn't plant it in September when I would have liked to.  After ordering it from a place online, I had to wait until their shipping schedule allowed it to be shipped, and by then it was October. Ordinarily we'd still have a month or more before a good snowfall, but it had only been in the ground a couple of weeks when we got a freak, huge snowstorm (23 inches!) which buried all my plants, breaking their stems.  I think it will live, but I'll have to wait until Spring to find out. 

(Update: This hydrangea did not live.  I think it was the mounds of snow so early in the season.)

The Mail Order Shipping Schedule Does Not Agree With Me

In New England we have Black Fly Season in Spring

I live in the northeastern United States and we have "Black Fly Season" around May each year.  I've found that most of the online shops send out shipments in Spring and Fall and the plants will ship according to your climate zone.  For me, that means Spring shipping is during Black Fly season.  During all of May and some of June little black flies swarm and bite.  The bites are not like mosquitoes, they leave huge welts on me.  It is not the time to be outdoors gardening.  Because of this, I cannot order plants to be shipped to me in Spring.

I've ordered plants through mail a number of times and usually been happy with the results.  But I don't like the fact that the plants will arrive at my house when the company chooses to send them.  It means dropping what I am doing, and planting the shrubs - good weather or bad. (If they arrive in pots, waiting is okay, but bare root plants need planting right away.)

I lose the freedom to say "hey, it's going to be a nice weekend so I'll go buy a new shrub and add it to the yard".  Instead, the plants can arrive in the worst weather conditions - with the black flies swarming - and still they need to be planted.


Local Farm Stands and Nurseries Need Our Business

Supporting the community is one of the best reasons to buy local.

I realize that many people go to the big stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's for their Spring planting needs, but where I live it's easier to shop at a local farm stand or family run nursery.  I feel good about supporting them, and as long as they provide the plants I'm looking for I will buy from them.

Nearby shops will be selling plants that will grow well in your climate and the business owners should be able to answer any questions you may have about the shrubs.

Some places guarantee their plants too.  The little Lilac tree in this picture had a 3 year guarantee.  I'm not sure how it works - if you have to take the dead one back or what, but it's one more incentive to buy from a local store.

Which resources do you use to beautify your landscape?

There are many possible places to buy annuals and perennials for the garden.

Good Mail Order Companies Will Provide Directions For Planting

And your plants will arrive packaged well.

In my experience plants ordered through the mail will either come in pots, like the hydrangeas and forsythia I ordered and pictured here, or as bare root plants. 

These three perennials came from American Meadows and they arrived in little pots.  We were having a rainy spell when they arrived so I set them out on my deck to adjust to being outdoors and they also got nice rain water to rejuvinate them.

I also ordered bulbs which came packaged in bags of dirt.

In the past I've received plants that come as "bare root", meaning they are not potted in soil.  They should be soaked in a bucket of water before planting and will need attention as soon as they arrive.

A good mail order store should send planting information along with the delivery and one that does a nice job is Miller Nurseries.  I've ordered from them in the past.

(Update: the forsythia is growing nicely by fall 2012 - one year later.)

My Consensus Overall

About the mail order process compared to buying at local nurseries.

I will use mail order for plants I can't get locally, but otherwise I will shop around my home for the perennails I'll add to the yard.  That way, when I know a nice stretch of weather is approaching I can get outside and dig!

My Mail Order Hydrangea Came Neatly Boxed

I was impressed with the wrap-around boxes that held my perennials from American Meadows. The plants arrived in good shape with barely any stems or leaves broken. They were a bit wilted, but water brought them right back to life.

hydrangea potted

Updated: 01/22/2014, dustytoes
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How easy is it for you to find local, affordable, perennials for your yard?

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dustytoes on 10/26/2013

Using native plants is always a good idea. I also like to propagate and try my hand at growing something new from what I already have - it's cheap and you know what you will end up with. I love your business idea. Thanks for this input.

cazort on 10/26/2013

Outside of food plants, I landscape with 100% native plants, straight species, not horticultural varieties, and I have found it very hard to find plants like these in mainstream nurseries. On the other hand, non-profit environmental centers that have native plant sales, I've found a much better place.

I also propagate plants from seed and from cuttings from the wild and from my friends' gardens, and I often get lucky enough to have plants just come up. My girlfriend noticed there was an unmaintained strip of property between her building and the neighboring one--these are apartment buildings in a highly urban environment--and found it filled with white wood aster, white snakeroot, Philadelphia fleabane, and other native wildflowers.

I like supporting local businesses, but as long as the businesses are just selling horticultural varieties and plants not native to my area, they're not going to get any of my business, because that's not what I want in my garden. My girlfriend and I have even considered some day opening a native plant nursery...a lot of the plants we've been learning about are really easy to propagate and grow, and I think we'd be filling a vacant business niche.

katiem2 on 04/06/2013

I've bought mail order plants, when my girls were babies and toddlers I opted to shop from home as much as possible. I scored some of my best perennials from mail order plants. Great way to buy flowers and plants, plus it SO fun getting packages sent to your home. :)K

BrendaReeves on 11/18/2012

I have never bought mail order plants, but every spring I'm tempted to. After reading your article, I just might give it a try.

Pinkchic18 on 02/28/2012

My motto for anything is to buy local if you can. I agree that we have to support the little guys! But I would never have known what to expect from mail ordering flowers so your experience was interesting to hear.

SeanMac on 02/19/2012

Mail order woks best for me as the nearest garden store is a long way off. Mail order offers a great choice too. Good article.

katiem2 on 02/18/2012

I use both mail order and garden stores, we have some very good garden stores in our community and surrounding city. I don't hesitate to buy plants online or in catalogs as I've had very good experiences doing that as well.

ethelsmith on 01/01/2012

A much needed glimpse into Spring thanks. We do propagate some but buy from many sources too

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