Mail-order plants

In this April 27, 2010 photo, mail-order plants are displayed in New Paltz, NY. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)

AP Photo/Lee Reich

People often stare in disbelief when I suggest buying a plant from a nursery thousands of miles away. Surely no plant could survive such a journey!

Not so. This time of year, trucks and airplane holds are filled with plants on the move. If shipped from reputable nurseries, they thrive as well as plants purchased locally.

Buyer beware

That “if” is a big one. Quality costs money, so beware of any nursery offering super-bargains or horticultural hype.

For instance, you might see a magazine ad or catalog listing for a plant described as a “climbing vine peach.” Be aware that this plant’s fruits might look like peaches but are tasteless by comparison. This “vine peach” isn’t even distantly related to a real peach.

And just because a nursery offers an “ironclad guarantee” does not make it reputable. Some disreputable nurseries offer such guarantees but bank on customers’ apathy or their forgetting about such claims when spring melts into summer.

A few rotten fruits do not ruin the whole barrel, though: Many mail-order nurseries sell quality plants and also have strong guarantees. Just read between the lines of any nursery ad, catalog or website to determine if the business seems reputable, and do your research about the plants.

Bare root or potted?

Mail-order plants are shipped either potted or bare root. “Bare root” sounds brutal, but plants do fine shipped this way if handled properly by the nursery and you.

The nursery’s job is to dig the plants while they are leafless, except in the case of small evergreens, then keep them cool with their roots swathed in moist peat, sawdust, shredded newspaper or other moist, spongy material. Years ago, I received a small, bare-root bush cherry plant that had been just tossed into a plastic bag; no wonder it never grew.

Your job is to unpack any bare-root plant soon after its arrival, check that the roots are still moist, then put it in the ground posthaste. If you cannot plant immediately, keep the plant cool and moist by putting it in your refrigerator with its roots wrapped in plastic, or by temporarily planting it in a shallow hole at a shady, moist location.

Potted plants can go longer before being planted out in their permanent location — as long as you keep the potting soil moist. The nursery’s job, in this case, is to pack the plants to arrive at your doorstep with their stems undamaged and their soil intact.

Some nurseries have mastered the art of packing and shipping live plants. Opening a shipping box of their neatly nestled, happy plants gladdens any plant lover’s eyes.

Size matters

Whether you are ordering a bare-root or potted plant — even if you are buying locally — do not always opt for the largest one you can buy. Large, bare-root plants often suffer more in digging and transit. Large potted plants often have their roots cramped and twisted into undersize pots. In either case, growth of a smaller plant might outstrip growth of a larger one after a couple of years.

There is something satisfying about walking into a nursery on a balmy spring day, drinking in the bright colors, the smells, the riot of greenery and textures, then buying a plant. But if a local nursery does not have the type or quality you desire, buy mail-order.

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