I’m frequently asked where all the plants in my garden come from, and the answer, more often than not, is: good things come in small packages.
Exchange seed from various plant societies has been top of my shopping list for near on three decades, but some gardeners, it seems, “have no luck with seed” and prefer to start with a ready made plant.
Since becoming a member of the Nordic Arboretum Committee, plant material from the botanic gardens of Scandinavia and the Baltic states is playing an increasingly important role. Alas, due to CITES regulations, I’m not allowed to sell such plants or their offspring.
This, for the time being, leaves us with the parcels from mail order plant companies and March is the month they start to arrive. With plant miles and energy conservation high on the agenda, ordering from catalogues has an almost sinful air these days.
It also has its justifications. Where in Shetland would the discerning gardener find Uvularia perfoliata, a woodlander with drooping primrose yellow flowers, or Vancouveria chrysantha, a ground cover plant with thread-like stems and marbled foliage?
Over the years I’ve dealt with many mail order nurseries; some, sadly, have ceased trading and are sorely missed, others I tried once only, because their plants were of poor quality or dished out in extremely mean portions.
Many have become firm favourites. Beth Chatto, Great Dixter, Garden Cottage, Cally Gardens, Barnhaven Primroses, Potterton and Thuja Alpines (contact details are available on the internet), offer a delectable range of plants and, with new items added every year.
Michael Wickenden of Cally collects and introduces exciting new species, and he also has high principles and gives patented plants a wide berth. Beth specialises in unusual plants, and offers things of subtle beauty, perfect to form the chorus for the solo performers in the garden. Dixter grows a huge range of clematis, and always has some interesting herbaceous stuff.
Garden Cottage specialises in coastal plants, excels in New Zealand natives and gives hardiness ratings. Barnhaven primulas are the crème de la crème; the company now sells plants as well as seeds.
Potterton has a good range of unusual dwarf bulbs, as well as alpines and small shrubs, while Thuja offers one of the most delectable selections of alpines in the country, herbaceous and woody, at very reasonable prices.
There’s a long list of others I use from time to time if I’m looking for specific plants. Slacktop is, as far as I can ascertain, the only nursery in the country that offers the yellow form of Fritillaria pyrenaica, while www.rareplants.de is a good source of tree peony seed.
Just now and again, I also succumb to the glossies and, with the odd exception, live to regret it. The catalogues of the horticultural mail order giants are the equivalent of celebrity magazines.
We all know how very misleading those red carpet shots are: perfect individuals groomed and made up to within an inch of their lives. They never show the real person, and it is exactly the same on the red carpet for plants: idealised images and close-ups of the floral glory that give no indication of a plant’s overall appearance or habit.
A good description does it for me every time, and Beth Chatto is the undisputed queen when it comes to conjuring up the essence of a plant in a brief paragraph. Sadly her “phytopoetry” no longer features in her catalogue, but is still available in her internet plant list. Mail order has one significant drawback. You can’t choose your own specimens (they’re selected for you), nor can you check on the health and quality of your purchases, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept whatever arrives.
A mistake made by some nurseries is to water their plants rather too well prior to despatch. Excess moisture and the lack of air in a parcel encourage fungal infection and can, at times, be a lethal combination. Plants that have dried out temporarily have a far better chance of survival, as they can easily be rehydrated on arrival and drooping shoots can be pruned back.
The other day I received a consignment of mixed blessings. There was some fungal growth on the leaves of an alstroemeria and the roots of an epipactis, nothing that a pair of sharp scissors and a dusting of sulphur couldn’t fix. I’d also ordered a large bulb of Cardiocrinum giganteum, the giant lily.
Unlike tulips and daffodils, these bulbs have no protective tunic, and should never be allowed to dry out. But this was obviously the case here. Its three outer scales were shrivelled, streaked with black, dotted with white fungus, and had sunken rotting patches. This was in stark contrast to plump and healthy cardiocrinum bulbs I’d received from a different supplier the previous week.
Drawing the odd blank comes with the mail order territory, and the companies I deal with are all forthcoming when it comes to putting things right.
When I contacted the supplier of the cardiocrinum, I was told in no uncertain manner that the bulb was perfectly alright. If I insisted, I could return it for a refund, but had to pay the postage, as there was nothing wrong with their plants.
As being out of pocket while ending up with nothing is not a happy prospect, I sent them photographic proof but was told again that the bulb was perfectly alright and that I could remove the diseased scales. Cardiocrinum giganteum takes about seven years to reach flowering size; in Shetland it takes as much as nine. All its energy goes into the swelling of the bulb and the grand finale, a stem, three metres tall, hung with huge white, fragrant trumpet-shaped flowers, tinged red in the throat. As the plant is monocarpic, it dies after setting seed, but leaves small bulbs that can be grown on.
Buying a large bulb means buying time, and the amputation of rotting scales reduced mine to a small, central core. I might as well have bought a seedling at a fraction of the price. The lesson is to give nurseries with infallibility complexes a very wide berth. I’d also advise you to steer clear of those that reserve the right to substitute at their discretion.
It isn’t just the size and quality of plants that matters, it’s the service one gets, and that’s where the small, family-run businesses win hands down. Not only do they contact me before they despatch, but they also suggest suitable substitutes if something has run out, let me know when plants haven’t wintered quite as well as expected, and just now and again, slip in a little surprise.
Recently muted government plans to further privatise the Royal Mail must have sent shivers down the spine of the Shetland community, since we’re already being penalised for living on an island.
Some mail order nurseries, it seems, are making capital out of this. I was recently charged twice the standard carriage cost of £4.95, to cover additional costs for getting my plants to Shetland. A week or so later, two tiny boxes, weighing about a kilo altogether, arrived – in the post!
The internet auction site eBay has a feedback facility that helps weed out rogue traders. Having something similar for mail order plant companies would be desirable.
Perhaps I should start my own league table for the benefit of Shetland gardeners? From what has arrived here so far this year, Garden Cottage lies in first place, and Lady Skelmerdale’s Broadleigh Gardens brings up the rear.