Extension Educator, Horticulture
A gardener's "shop 'til you drop" is leafing through a stack of new garden catalogs. It may be more appropriately "shop 'til you stare" with visions of delectable juicy peaches, fragrant roses and the first ripe tomato that doesn't remind you of something from the box factory. Catalogs offer a utopia of fruits, flowers and vegetables.
With the myriad of catalogs available, how can we choose which catalogs to place our order and our trust? If you are adventuring beyond just looking at the pictures, here are a few tips on selecting a catalog company.
Check to see if the Latin botanic name and/or the cultivar name (cultivated variety) is listed with the common name, especially with flowers, trees and shrubs. Botanic names should be italicized or underlined and the cultivar in single quotes. Common names vary from region to region, but botanic names are international and don't vary significantly. A listed botanic name unlike the common name commits the company to sending you a very specific plant.
For example if a plant is listed as Blue Sage, it could be Salvia x superba which is a perennial or it could be Salvia farinaceawhich is a perennial only in warmer regions of the country. To complicate things further, you might be looking for Blue Salvia not knowing its other common name is Mealycup Sage.
In addition if you want a dark blue salvia about 18 inches tall, you might purchase Salvia farinacea'Victoria'. 'Victoria' is the cultivar. If a company just uses common names, they could send you any one of several different plants with very different characteristics. Sort of like having a blind date with a guy named "Rusty".
Check return policies, guarantees on plants and shipping charges. How long after purchase is a replacement possible? A customer service number should be prominently listed. Sometimes minimum orders have a large shipping charge. Combine orders with fellow gardeners and take advantage of quantity ordering. Be careful of companies that ship plants year around.
Be careful of outrageous claims. I once saw an article for the tomato that helped win WWII. I guess they must have been dropped it from the sky on the unexpected.
The size of shipped plants and bulbs should be listed. A two-year-old plant for $10 may be a better deal than the $3.50 seedling, especially for a new gardener. Place a trial order with a company before making large dollar amount purchases.
Take advantage of catalogs with specific growing information such as the light, soil and water requirement. I especially like catalogs that give the pros and cons of a plant. Some plants require very special soil conditions or winter protection. With seeds, look for the All-America Selections that have performed well throughout the United States.
Catalogs should list plant hardiness zone ratings. We are in zone 5. Some plants listed as perennials (plants that live several years in the same spot) are actually annuals in colder areas.
Gardening by Mailby Barbara Barton is an excellent reference for listing catalogs for seed companies, plant nurseries, garden supplies, societies, magazines, libraries and useful garden books. Check book stores and libraries for a copy. Many companies also have web pages.A few companies to try for a variety of flowers and vegetables:
If you have any of last year's catalogs with bright colorful pictures, don't throw them away. Please drop them by the Champaign Unit office at 1715 West Springfield in Champaign for our school gardening program.