Buying unseen plants

I've been visiting the local nurseries quite a bit this spring, and that means I've been bringing home lots of new plants too. What do you do though when the local shops don't carry plants that you're looking for? You buy online! (or "mail-order" as we once called it)

Today I have two stories about buying plants that you can't really see. The first is from a company in Wisconsin that I've never bought from before: Prairie Nursery. I've been looking for a specific native fern for a few years now and have never seen it available locally. A web search, an order, and this box arrived (a couple of days earlier than I expected).



...dormant plants, or so the cute sign informs me.

The packing material is quite interesting. Seems like very long and thin wood shavings.

Underneath, the plants, well secured...

I bought five Hay-scented ferns, Dennstaedtia punctilobula. (I do not know how to pronounce that genus name!)

Trust is involved here, as even the best plant ID experts need some plant to be visible.

(I suspect one of these has been mislabled as it has woken earlier than the rest and is looking more grassy than ferny -- you can see it in these photos too once you know what to look for.)

So there's nothing to do but set these out and wait for them to awaken. I put them into my fern bed for now, even though this is not where they will be living:

Japanese painted fern on left, Sensitive fern on right

How about a wider shot?

Nice. (Yes there's a big hosta in my fern bed)

I'm quite happy with Prairie Nursery so far, and their catalog is almost an encyclopedia of midwest natives -- so great! I'll see what happens if indeed that one plant turns out to have been mislabled and I need to contact them.

My second story of buying unseen plants involves those bags of inexpensive bare-root perennials that you see in the big box stores each spring.

A bit of an impulse buy, but for certain plants that may not escape being deer food I want to pay as little as possible. That's certainly the case with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) so I took a chance.

Not a bad start as I see some good roots here...

...but after separation I see that there are some bad ones here.

Some good ones...

...some that are questionable...

...and some that are clearly compost (or nearly so):

So out of six advertised plants, I got one good one and two "maybes". All three are potted up and I'll see what happens. Not such a great deal after all.

Although I didn't take photos, I did a similar thing with Liatris spicata. Those bags advertise that they contain 20 corms and I bought three bags. (As mentioned before, I'm trying to get Liatris so well-established in my garden that the deer won't eat it all.)

The first bag had some rotten corms and it looked like about half of them were still viable. After closer inspection though, every one of the corms from that bag had rot damage so I tossed them all. The second bag contained only 18 corms but they were all viable. The third bag contained 20 corms, all good. So 38 potential new liatris in my garden this year. How many will I see bloom?

I don't think I'll be buying these bagged plants again, or if I do I'll be examining them as closely as possible (which is not too easy through the opaque green bags) and doing a lot of squeezing to check for rot.

Do you buy many plants sight unseen?


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Kathy G  – (April 30, 2015 at 7:59 AM)  

I think I'd return those bad bags of perennials! I try to buy as little as possible from those big box stores. It's interesting that your Liatris spicata are getting eaten. I always thought they were pretty deer-resistant.

Chickadee Gardens  – (April 30, 2015 at 9:02 AM)  

You're more adventurous than I when it comes to buying bagged plants from the box stores. Does that make me a snob? There's some mental block there that says "it just won't work" I guess. I hope it does for you! I hope your ferns turn out to be ferns after all!

Chickadee Gardens  – (April 30, 2015 at 9:03 AM)  

I have to add, though that I've bought from Annie's Annuals and others and had great results.

outlawgardener  – (April 30, 2015 at 9:05 AM)  

It's always exciting to get a box of plants in the mail! I've purchased pots and bags of dirt before and usually have pretty good luck, especially when they come in the mail from a nursery with a good track record. Those bagged perennials start showing up at our box stores really early (Feb or March) and they are usually great when they first arrive. The problem is that they are usually inside the store where it's too warm and growth/rot ensues fairly quickly. I wonder if the box stores order a lot of stock from growers early and warehouse it before it goes to colder winter areas? That would certainly explain the death of so many of your purchases.

Alan  – (April 30, 2015 at 9:12 AM)  

Kathy: Liatris spicata is always one of the first things to get chomped. :(

Tamara: I expect 4 of the 5 are ferns. We'll see about the 5th (or 1st since it's waking up now...) I've also never had problems with any online orders before -- I've always had good results from everybody.

Peter: yeah, I should buy the bags as soon as they arrive and store them in my cold garage. That would probably help. Good thinking!

Mark and Gaz  – (April 30, 2015 at 10:30 AM)  

Ever since online shopping and mail order went into full force nursery trade who offer them has reaped benefits. We buy unseen plants too, there's always the risk but those who deliver and pack well of good quality plants always get repeat custom. Those who don't never again. Shame the bagged plants weren't such good value but the pots of soil from the nursery looks a lot more promising :)

Alan  – (April 30, 2015 at 11:17 AM)  

Mark/Gaz: have you had any bad experiences with online purchases? I think most places are quite good and don't disappoint, although there must be bad ones too.

Teri  – (April 30, 2015 at 12:02 PM)  

If I buy bagged 'roots' at a store, I open them in the car in the parking lot. If there's too many bad... I go right back in for a refund.

www.ravenscourtgardens. com  – (April 30, 2015 at 10:20 PM)  

I do buy online because the market here in Houston is not very adventurous. I have had good result but I did research the companies first. My only complaint is I have to start with such tiny plants. As a landscaper I am used to getting at least one gallon plants. But somethings are worth waiting for : ) Can't wait to see how the fern turn out. I have a fern and hosta garden test garden trying to see what works here in Houston.

danger garden  – (April 30, 2015 at 11:58 PM)  

I recently became a little obsessed with a plant I've never seen offered here in the PNW. I went through 4 or 5 different mail order companies before I finally placed an order. One wouldn't ship to Oregon (some chemical they said our government requires to be sprayed on plants and they refused to do it...personally io think they might be insane), one made me jump through a million hoops before they finally emailed me (after I ordered) to tell me they didn't have said plant. Others wanted to charge me in excess of $60 to ship (from the SE US, 2nd day air). I finally ordered from a company that made it so easy I was afraid it was a scam, but the plants arrived in great condition. Yes I'm being vague but I plan to post about it all sometime soon. The only other nursery I've ordered from recently is Annie's and that's always a safe bet!

Alan  – (May 1, 2015 at 6:36 AM)  

Laurin: That's exactly how I'd describe most nurseries in St. Louis too: "not very adventurous", at least at first glance. Most places have some sort of gems though if you look hard enough, but if you're looking for a specific plant that's a little hard to find you may not find it locally.

Loree: Sounds frustrating! Funny that you're shipping plants INTO the PNW and several of my orders over the past couple years have shipped FROM the PNW. :)

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