As temperatures get colder, most gardeners are starting to have dreams of the first juicy-ripe tomato or heavenly fragrance of a garden-fresh rose. While we may not be able to garden, it is not too early to plan what to grow.
Plants and seeds are available from many sources, including local garden centers, hardware stores, and department stores. But retailers aren't able to carry every cultivar, so you may find it necessary to make selections from mail-order gardening catalogs.
With thousands available, including many on the Internet, how do you decide which catalog to use? Here are a few tips to guide your search:
• Ask other gardeners. Most will be happy to tell you their favorite catalogs.
• Check descriptions. Common names of plants are always listed, but these names vary from region to region. Check the description for the Latin botanic name and the cultivar name of the plant. Botanic names are international and usually don't vary. It is particularly important to know a plant's botanic name when ordering perennial flowers, trees and shrubs. For example if a company lists a plant's name as "Siberian iris," you could receive any one of several different plants with different growing characteristics. But if the common name Siberian iris is listed as well as the botanic name Iris sibirica 'Caesar's Brother,' the company will send you this specific plant.
• Check quantities. Many companies sell different sizes of seed packets and plants. Seeds are sold in ounces, pounds or by a specific quantity. Avoid buying more seed than you need; most seed will last only one or two years. The size or age of shipped plants should be listed. A two-year-old plant may be a better investment than a seedling or row run plant, especially for a beginning gardener.
• Check growing information. Catalog descriptions should include growing information such as plant hardiness zone ratings (we are in zone 5) and light, soil, and water requirements. Some catalogs will even list the pros and cons of a plant. Be cautious of outrageous claims, and plant descriptions like "vigorous" or "fast-growing."
• Check the fine print. Before placing an order, review the company's shipping charges, return policies and guarantees. Sometimes the shipping charges are more than the total purchase. You may find it wise to combine orders with fellow gardeners. Will the company replace an order that you are not satisfied with? How long after purchase is replacement possible? Many companies will guarantee hardy plants for up to one year. If you are ordering plants by mail order, when will items be shipped?
If you are unsure of a company's reputation, place a trial order before making large purchase.
Keep notes about the plants and seeds you purchase -- germination rates, vigor of plants, insect and disease resistance, and ability of the plant to survive growing conditions of your area. This information will help you determine the dependability of the sources you have chosen.
A useful mail order garden resource is Cyndi's Catalog of Garden Catalogs located at www.qnet.com/~johnsonj/.
This site references most of the mail order gardening catalogs in the United States and Canada; listing more than 2,000 mailing and Web addresses, phone numbers, and specialties.
(University of Illinois Extension does not endorse any company.)