April 26, 2009

Plants by Mail - Do you get what you pay for?

As we clean and prep the gardens for some garden tours next week, the greenhouse garden has never looked better.

Early narcissus with pink rimmed trumpets blooms near the door of the greenhouse. ( I lost the variety name).

The alpine troughs that sit on the bluestone walk that leads to the greenhouse are starting to bloom, with tiny Primula, androsace and Draba starting the show.

In the ephemeral garden, many plants are blooming like trillium, anemones, corydalis, and these hybrid Erythronium, or Dogs Tooth Violets, which look like yellow lilies here, but are named for the way that their bulb looks - like a dogs canine tooth.

Some plants from Songsparrow Nursery arrived on Friday afternoon.

I was in a meeting, Thursday, at work, when a discussion started before latecomers arrived, about what were we all going to be doing on the upcoming weekend - one which was promising the warmest temperatures of the year, 80 degrees and blue skies...then, one newly married colleague admitted that she was planting a lilac, which was arriving in the mail. I asked where she ordered it from, and then she shyly admitted that she ordered it from Spring Hill (wincing, when I visibly winced). Sometimes, people just know what the response will be.

But then the reality smacks me.....no matter how much of an evangelist I may be for quality and the best performing cultivars, most gardeners who garden on the weekends in North America, have an idea...oops, I mean an ideology that is informed by, oh, I don't know....their childhood vision of a garden' - and if cockleshells really existed as a plant, surely, they would buy it ( from Spring Hill most likely.

Now, honestly, before you all respond with a wheelbarrow full of emails about how terrific Spring Hill is, I am only responding from the perspective of a plant collector who is concerned more about plant quality, provenance, shipping methods, and cultivars. Those of us who know, know which mail-order nurseries ship the finest, most thoughtful and carefully packed, largest or well grown of the best varieties of species or genus that the world has to offer....and then, there are the rest. Of course, we all learn in the world of gardening, and it occurs over time. We learn that Blue Potatoes from Guerney's aren't really 'blue', but purple and they aren't the novelty they once we're two decades ago since now they are indeed trending worthy and even no longer called 'AMAZING BLUE POTATOES' or RAINBOW POTATOES', instead they are positioned as heirloom Peruvian purple potatoes and are available at Whole Foods at $5.00 a pound. All I ask is that you all move toward being more informed gardeners in addition to being emotionally motivated. So the next time you feel the inner stirring that tell you that you must have a Foxglove or a Bleeding Heart......make sure you do some homework, and at least, invest in the best quality variety, species, or finest new introduction or most proven vintage heirloom variety that you can find, and then order it from the expert nursery that either breeds that cultivar or knows the best growers. It might be true that price means quality, and it might not, but in my experience, mostly, 98 percent of the time, the higher the price today, the better the quality. Gripe if you will, but in an interconnected, internet-driven world, it is far more difficult for growers today to get away with high prices for crap than they used to be.
Song sparrow packs four to a box, or large gallon-sized planted are single. They arrive in perfect condition.

Plants from reputable nurseries such as Songsparrow arrive in impressive packaging.

OK, the truth is that many garden snobs are just that, gardening snobs....and although I'm OK with that idea, since I am one, and I hang out with many if not the greatest of garden snobs in the world. I also welcome the newbie. On one condition...that they promise to appreciate and listen, read and learn, that they take the time to GROW. What I don't have the patience for are those who treat plants and gardening as decoration only, disposable nature, or as furnishing. So if you spend your weekends preening your Scotts-perfect lawn, as if it was a golf course, or if your idea of horticultural success is lush, largest, most perfect like a Rapid-Gro Tomoato commercial and that your idea of a perfect flower garden is that of Daisys that bloom from early spring until fall, when you only need to move the red mulch or white stones, just enough to plant a bushel basket Mum---no wait....you hate mums.....your idea of the perfect flower garden consists of the simple palette of blue and pink. Blue Hydrangeas in clouds that mimic the color of the sky on a Cape Cod morning in September but the perfection park comes from your visions that below the clouds of blue grow white daisies, tall fragrant Casa Blanca lilies, drifts of Pink Lady's slippers, intermingled with violets, sweetpeas, poppies, how could I forget poppies, everblooming lily of the valley, bleeding hearts in white and pink, morning glories, foxgloves, Batchelor buttons, Big Pink Peonies, and the white ones, anything that blooms in Peach, tea roses, lilacs, topiaries, ahhhhhh.........

OK. I guess I'm a garden snob. But I can help you appreciate more. Really. Believe me, I am all for old fashioned gardens, in fact, I often despise the newer varieties opting for the vintage, but folks, do your homework. Since you are reading this, you can find on Google, the finest grower of Heirloom Iris, vintage peonies, lilacs that we're grown at Versailles. Just research first, then buy. As for old fashioned gardens? It's all relative, subjective and like anything that is emotionally fed, is personal. I do grow the vintage plants that remind me of my childhood, and most likely, you would find them unexciting, lame, or poor choices. Gardening is like cooking and eating. We all like comfort food, and yes, I have my plot of Bleeding hearts and I do collect vintage Iris varieties introduced at the time my house was built ( 1910), I do prefer the 19th century varieties of Lilacs, and plant them at the edge of the woods, I love old fashioned perennial gardens that look like a watercolor illustration from a children's book from 1902 ( hollyhocks, digitalis, Salpiglossis, Sweat peas, hmm I have a posting idea). Just grow what you love, but don't stop there.

Look, my point it, if you want a lilac, if 'feel' that a lilac will add something special to your life, that you want to see you, child, to have the experience you once had when you would steal some fragrant branches from an unsuspecting neighbors' bush to bring to your mother, a scent that today, instantly brings you back in time to your childhood, if you want to plant a bush that will be the shrub of Lilac in full bloom that your future daughter might pose in front of for their prom picture, then doesn't that experience of the future demand the respect of conscious selection? Doesn't that event deserve the 15 minutes of research on-line or with friends to find the finest lilac shrub and cultivar, delivered in a one-gallon pot, carefully rooted from an over-performing cultivar with a provenance of excellence? Or does it simply mean a direct mail brochure ' and a 4-inch pot or bare-root' deal'?. Sure, Spring Hill may be better now, and I intend to order some and see for myself, to test if things have changed, but I would look first for the best that I could afford. Now, granted, I could probably afford more than most, but even if I could not, I would do my homework for a good variety could be found even at a WalMart, you never know. But then, so could a bad cutting in a tube box.

So where do I start? Well, honestly I know little about lilacs, So, I just Googled Lilac nursery,and found the International Lilac Society.... this may direct me to some growers who they believe are worthy. Most plants have a society, either nationally or internationally, and under their sources guide, one will find reputable growers, for these are societies and rarely do they list growers who pay for advertising ( in their journals, they may have paid ad's so be cautious.). Now ( Michelle with 2 L's since you know who I am talking to) I found this place in Massachusetts just now, as I am writing thing....Windy Hill Farm ( I love these guys, what a day trip to thier rural nursery in the Berkshires)...their list says "686 Stockbridge Rd Great Barrington, MA 01230
413-298-3217 Fax 413-298-3167
Dennis Mareb offers an extensive selection of Syringa on its own rootstock, in field-grown 3 to 6 feet tall, 3 and 5-gallon containers. Located in Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts where cultivars, hybrids, species, and grafted standards are offered." Cool.

Then, the site lists another Massachusetts site, Syringa Plus, a "Wholesale nursery with retail trade of superior taxa on their own roots shipped bare root or in 3 1/2 inch pots to 2 gals. containers. Visitors welcome by appointment. Growing list available." Sure, barerot, but these must be impressive plants.

An Alpine rock from Wrightman Alpines arrives safe and sound, ready for planting. If you are interested in growing high elevation plants in troughs, and if you want the best luck with such plants as Saxifrages, Wrightman's carries these rocks, where three alpine plants are already established, rooted in a piece of Tufa rock, ready to be planted in your trough or alpine bed. Plants grow this way are very successful, and these are really worth the money.

They arrive in a box full of foam peanuts and fresh sphagnum, ready to be planted.

An established Alpine rock from Wrightman Alpines, two years old, set into planting in a trough by Betsy Knapp.


  1. Matt,Syringa Plus nursery is great, also Fox Hill lilacs is very good as well...all on their own roots.

  2. Anonymous8:05 AM

    OK, so this is Michele with ONE L.

    I hope you enjoyed your 2 days off. I hope the weird weather vortex over Worchester isn't making more rain there than here and your garden tours go well.

    Meanwhile, my psycho-neighbor's bamboo is shooting up all over my yard and wreaking havoc on the Yankee cobblestones, upending them like mini earthquake victims and even causing the vintage tub filled with soil to shift! HELP!

    Also, my vintage lilac is beginning to bloom. Michelle-2-L is still blushing over her faux-pas as evidenced in a door-way conversation with Val on Friday.

    Isn't there a place in the world for the simple joy of planting and making mistakes? Suppose it's the journey of doing yourself and aquiring knowledge first-hand that allows us to get to a place of being more knowledgeable instead of relying on experts and the internet? I think there may be some charm in naivete, some authenticity of pride in figuring it out on your own. :) But seriously, I need some heirloom tomatoes and any other cast-offs like the hosta. Wait...isn't there something up there about "disposable nature"???? Did you see the documentary about the naive gardner who created an amazing garden somewhere in South Carolina using cast-offs from local nurseries? It was on Ovation. He regularly goes through the junkheaps and grabs mis-shapen and half-dead "unsellable" plants and turns them into living art. No training. Just love and trial by doing. I'll research and send.

    See you Monday.

  3. Anonymous12:45 AM

    wow! you ARE a snob!
    yeesh. i bet she wont enjoy gardening anymore! Great job, humiliating someone for getting their hands in the dirt. because gardening should only be for folks who can afford more and enjoy humiliating others publicly, like you. Yeah!
    you're a douchebag.

  4. Thank you for your comment.
    I think you are right, I did come off as a douchebag in the post. But it was not my intention, but I did get a little ticked off becuase nothing gets me more hot than educated people making decisiong like amateurs. We live in such a fast society, that it is too easy ot just rush into something and not think about it. We might buy a teflon pan, and never think, or care, about the consequences, or, we might but invest in a tree, but order it at great cost from a source that will untimately just rip us off.

    THis case is different. WE sit next to each other every day, and it was a bit of a joke that she ordered something from Spring Hill, when I could have handed her a list of small, local nurseries that are breeding stronger, better cultivars for less cost. But there are plenty of people like here, I'm afraid, and who is going to help them? I mean, I saw for a moment this weekend, some guy pitching plants on the Home shopping Network. He was saying 'And they'll bloom all summer and will reaseed" The plant was a German Bearded Iris, and I am sure that hundreds of customers will buy them, all misslead. If you are OK with that behavior? Than why do I bother.
    We who read this blog are plant lovers, It's not about the cost, but sometimes, good quality comes at a cost. Sometimes bad quality comes at a cost. In the end, my customer peeked into my office and laughed showing me the dried twigs she recieved. ANd for half the cost, she could have have two nice vintage well grown, stocky varieties from the 18th C. What's so snobbish about that?
    As for 'snob....yeah, I might be, But a more accurate definition might be coinnoisseur, I respect mastery, and at the same time, I like random beauty, Nature is Mastery, Spring Hill Catalog, is not about mastery. It's about missleading customers.


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