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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 01:22 pm

Catalog the possibilities

It’s winter, but many gardeners have already started work

It is hard to believe, but many gardeners have already started working on their garden “to do” lists. Even though it’s winter, they’re dreaming about the colorful weed-free flowerbeds that will adorn their front yards this summer. To help visualize these dreams, many gardeners thumb through garden catalogs, full of colorful pictures and vivid descriptions. Whether you are looking for tomato seeds, fruit trees, daylily plants, fertilizers, or garden tools, you are bound to find excellent selections through mail-order catalogs. Here are a few tips for finding a catalog company to fit your needs. A beautiful picture in a catalog doesn’t mean that you’ll get the perfect plant. Companies selling merchandise rarely identify a plant’s faults. Also, be cautious of outrageous claims and words such as “vigorous grower.”
Does the company list Latin (botanical) names along with the common names? Botanical names, generally italicized or underlined, are international and don’t vary significantly, whereas common names vary from region to region. If a cultivar’s name is included, it will be listed in single quotes. A botanical name commits a company to sending you a specific plant. Before placing an order, do a little research. What are the plant’s specific growing needs — light, soil and water requirements, plant hardiness zone ratings, potential insect or disease problems? What is the duration of bloom for a flowering plant, and does the plant have any other outstanding characteristics? Check return policies, guarantees, shipping charges, and substitution policies. Be cautious of companies that ship plants year-round. The number of seeds in a packet or the size of shipped plants should be listed. Remember: The smaller a plant, the longer it takes to become a significant addition to the garden and the more patience it will require from you. How do you know whether a company is reputable? Aside from asking other gardeners, you can never be sure. If you have not ordered from a company before, place a small sample order. For a true test, order the same item from several companies. Many garden catalogs can be viewed or ordered online. However, a general search for “garden catalog” will yield millions of hits. To narrow your search, consider visiting Cyndi’s Catalog of Garden Catalogs at www.gardenlist.com. This is one-stop shopping for the home gardener who wants to catalog-shop. The site contains the mailing addresses and, when available, Web addresses for more than 2,000 garden merchandisers. When applicable, catalogs are categorized by specialty. Each link has an opinion rating for quality of plants, price, service, and selection. The only drawback I have found to this site is a few pop-ups. (This site is not endorsed by the University of Illinois Extension.) Generally you will be happier with plants purchased from a local garden center. If you can buy a plant locally, do so. Reserve purchasing plants by mail for the uncommon selections. Be sure to find out why a selection is not available locally. Sometimes it is because the plant in question will not grow well in our area; if this is the case, you may want to avoid buying the plant. Often a particular plant is not offered because it is a specialty item or not sold widely in the market. If this is the case but you have the perfect spot in your garden, order away. Whether you place an order or not, garden catalogs can provide you much inspiration for the coming growing season.
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