21 Feb 2011

In Response to Joy: Mail Order Nurseries

  DSC_0480 I was speaking to our local horticultural society last week, discussing the creation of my somewhat eclectic garden, and was asked on numerous occasion: ‘So where do you find all of these rare and unusual plants?’ It always makes me laugh since I find myself having to explain the somewhat tedious process that it involves.

I spend innumerable hours poring over catalogues, magazines and websites, always searching for the rare and unusual. Yellow sticky notes, recipe cue cards, scraps of paper, I’ve even been desperate enough to write on the surface of the table that houses the computer. Nine times out of ten the websites were from the US or England. Those familiar with importing plant material know that this is usually where the brakes are applied to a smoking, screeching halt! The idea of having to hire a broker, not to mention the various licenses one needs…. for many years it was frustrating enough to bring the onset of tears!

I’m lucky enough to work within the industry so I can always order in something rare and unusual with my weekly ordering, but there are more times than not when what I’m looking for is more akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack. I’m blessed to be a short drive from one of Ontario’s premiere plant nurseries, Lost Horizons, [read about it here] though its been two long years since I’ve had time to make a visit. Two years ago, while on a midnight troll of the internet, I stumbled across Thimble Farms. [See an in-depth posting here]

Of course, if you’re like me, at least when it comes to shopping for new and exciting plants, you want to make it as tangible an experience as is possible. You want to be able to pick up the pot, feast your hungry, near-devouring eyes upon the beauty of those deep sky blue sea horse shaped flowers or the rare Russian Corydalis woroshillovii, not to mention the breathtakingly beautiful blushing pink star shaped Erythronium hendersonii flowers – but alas, sometimes that experience simply isn’t possible. You toss the idea of mail-order over in your head, jostling with the notion that you don’t know what the plant will look like, what size it will be, whether it will actually be the plant that you ordered, not to mention how long it will take to arrive, and whether, at the end of the line it will actually still be alive. Oh trust me, I’ve heard all of the horror stories, and since I don’t consider myself to be the greatest of optimists, I spent an entire gardening season deciding if it was really worth the risk!

In the end I decided to give them a go. If you’re familiar with their catalogue, similar in context to both Lost Horizons and the old Heronswood catalogues of yore, those who rely on the printed word to describe in intimate detail every aspect one could ever want to know about a certain plant, you’ll understand how difficult it was to maintain the utmost in moderation. The list started at close to twenty rare and unusual beauties, each one more stunning and sumptuous than the last! Eventually I was able to narrow it down to a mere seven: Erythronium hendersonii, Erythronium japonicum, Erythronium revolutum, Helleborus thibetanus, Trillium rivale, and Disporum smilacinum ‘Flore Plenum’. Filling out the order form was sheer heaven as they asked for the Botanical Latin names…… they’d won my heart right from the start! A week later I emailed to make sure that they had received my order. A day later I had a response from the owner who guessed that I was new at this sort of thing and took the time to enlighten me to the fact that the plants would be smaller than as described in the catalogue. They would be shipped bare root in small plastic bags. Was I still interested?  In my mind I could see my darling new additions firmly entrenched and happy in their new home in the recently realigned Rare and Unusual Border. Yes! Go for it!

Within a week I was gently unpacking a box that was filled with newspaper [still damp] and bubble wrap. Immersed within were the plastic bags that contained my treasures. The Trilliums were so tiny….. delicate beyond words, with one that was actually about to bloom. The Erythronium were much larger sized corms than I anticipated, and one in fact was in the early stages of unfurling its magnificent flower! The beguiling Russian Corydalis… the photo at the beginning of this post was taken the following day after everything had been lovingly transplanted into pots and placed on my plant stand, where, for the next month and a half they would wait patiently for the threat of frost to dissipate from the Spring garden. One hundred percent satisfied. I’ve placed orders with them every Spring, and this year the list is so lengthy that it has to be split into two orders, for fear of me growing weary of a peanut butter and jelly diet too early on in the game of horticultural acquisition! I’m about to embark with another west coast nursery, who, after much begging is actually going to bend their ‘on site sales only’ policy for this obsessed collector from Ontari-ari-ari-o!

Of course, there have also been a few less than impressive ventures with a couple companies here in Ontario, who, in following an etiquette taught to me by my Grandmother, that being, if you have noting nice to say, say nothing at all! I shall leave it at that! If you’re considering using mail-order, do your homework. There is a great site where you can access reviews for most Canadian mail order sites. There will always be risks involved, but if you find yourself an insatiable collector like myself, sooner or later you’re going to have to rely on mail order.

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