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Occasional drama is what you want in an herbaceous border, to wake up the sleepy hordes of daisies and well-bred bellflowers
-Anna Pavord

Disgruntled of London

spider in web

the lure of shopping on the web!

A recent Which? report of online garden centres shows how wary of shopping for plants online, gardeners need to be. 1 Ordering from both large well-known suppliers and smaller specialist outlets, the survey concluded that it’s a bit of a lottery:-

“Let downs included small plants that were little more than cuttings, damaged plants, dried-out roots , diseased plants…” 2

Buying plants online is probably the least desirable option although ‘needs must when the devil drives’. In Camden, my nearest nursery is far too pricey to warrant the poor condition of many plants. The alternatives are the local market stocking cheap and cheerful seasonals or the superstore Homebase which sells a common-or-garden range. In short, I shop online out of necessity.

The Which? survey confirms my own experiences and could not have been more timely for I’ve just had the worst experience of buying blind and trusting to the online plant nursery.

Hoverfly on Caryopteris

Hoverfly on Caryopteris

I love Caryopteris probably as much as the hoverflies and wanting to add more summer blues to my beds, ordered C. x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’. The order arrived promptly and on opening the box I could see these had been well-packed but…

Moss choked pot of Caryopteris

Gardens4You -Moss choked pot of Caryopteris

…all 3  pots were choked with a thick layer of moss which had obviously been there long enough for the moss to flower. The plants themselves looked rather sick, having lost their lower leaves and only a top tier of somewhat jaundiced foliage remained.

pot bound Caryopteris

Gardens4You -pot bound Caryopteris

My worst fears were confirmed when tipping the plants out of their containers, a spaghetti of pot bound roots was revealed. Naturally I emailed a complaint to the company with accompanying images as proof. In return I received advice from their ‘expert’:-

“Turn the plant upside down out of the pot and first cut in half, just half way down and then turn to cut again in half, so your cutting in 4 quarters half of the way down and then pull roots loose with your fingers and plant directly into your garden. Rest assured it’s completely guaranteed so if it fails to take to your garden just let us know and we would be happy to arrange something.”

I have quoted the response in full if only because I was astounded that the company seemed to regard this as a minor complaint which I could easily rectify. Were I a hospital for sick plants, I  might have accepted the suggested remedy.

To be fair, having sent a very ‘disgruntled of London’ reply, a full refund was forthcoming but without any acknowledgement of the shortfall on their plant quality guarantee. 3  Moreover this was not an unfortunate one-off incident as the rest of my order was also in a parlous state of health.

As a gardening community of bloggers we can help each other with our experiences of shopping for plants online. Over the years, I have sampled quite a few internet garden shops and nurseries and have given a rating according to experiences thus far. Roll over the links for my brief reviews:-

yellow bleeding heart - dicentra scandens

Climbing Bleeding Heart

The good news is that more of the smaller, specialist nurseries, with reputations to uphold, are providing internet shopping in conjunction with mail order catalogues. For those of us seeking to be more adventurous with plants, I can recommend
Far Too Many Plants – a Brighton nurseryman with an expanding catalogue of unusual plants.

This Yellow Bleeding Heart (Dicentra scandens) was one of my purchases from here a couple of years ago. It’s a delicate leaved vine which clambers easily against a wall or grown through a shrub. Shade loving, D. scandens produces small yellow flower clusters in mid-summer although mine probably would be more floriferous in a brighter-shady spot. Slugs love it too.

What, if any, have been your experiences of shopping for plants online?

1. Which? members can access the results for free Online Garden Centres
2. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, Saturday July 2, 2011
3. “all  bulbs and plants at our garden centre are inspected by our own Quality Inspector Piet vd Aardwegh before they are shipped”. Gardens4You
©Copyright 2011 Laura Thomas.
All rights reserved. Content created by Laura Thomas @PatioPatch

30 comments to Disgruntled of London

  • Can’t comment Laura because I don’t buy plants except from the sick shelf at B&Q or Wilkinsons – I like to make them better. However, during a day off work, I saw a queue of pensioners jostling for them and I haven’t bought any since.

    Following the expert’s instructions and splitting up that pot-bound plant in your photo would have been a treat for me !
    b-a-g read my post..Woodland (06 JUL 2011)My Profile

  • I’ve had pot luck with plants bought at Homebase, but carriage charges put me off buying online. Mostly I stick with seeds, but then I’m growing herbs and veg with only a few flowers. I’ve had to employ the root splitting trick on many occasions! (btw, will be following your blog as am also doing same in neglected gardens of estate near Kentish Town.) Caro

  • I am leery of buying online and even from garden catalogues. Usually the plants are much smaller and more expensive than those I buy locally. As you said, it is the option of last resort. The exception to this is bulbs, which I buy from Brecks. I have never had complaints with their large, healthy bulbs, which are shipped direct from Holland.
    debsgarden read my post..How Not to Kill a Dwarf Alberta SpruceMy Profile

  • I agree that it can be a mixed bag out there. I’ve received some plants through the mail that I thought were fantastic. Other times, they are so small, half never make it. And they are quite expensive. I use mail order for unusual plants, if I don’t want just the same old, same old from the garden centers. However, I may have two living plants from the last order I placed (an order of probably 20 plants). Sad enough that I think I’ll stick to the garden centers for a while.
    Holley read my post..Little DelightsMy Profile

  • I’ve done a bit of both–shopping online and at local garden centers. I prefer the latter, in part because I have a couple of dear favorites now. But there are times when I want delivery direct to me or the centers don’t have the variety I want. No matter where you purchase, you have a right to quality plants–especially if you pay full price. Thanks for your insightful post!
    PlantPostings read my post..Plant of the month:Cimicifuga (Actaea racemosa)My Profile

  • and of course when you are a very navie and novice gardener you don’t understand about pot bound etc. and just think they didn’t grow because of something you did, learning the hard way, this is why I prefer and look for bare root plants during the domant season, I’ve been thinking of writing about nurseries I’ve had good experiences with but hesitate as I don’t know how consistent they are, you only have to read the comments on Amazon to see buying on line is a mixed bag, Frances
    island threads read my post..nice grassMy Profile

  • I take the opposite view – I never buy from the big retailers if I can help it, largely because I suspect most of them source from big nurseries with nice warm tunnels in the south of England or even in Europe. When the plants hit the Scottish climate, they are apt to sit rigid with shock and horror for a year, even if they don’t succumb right away….
    Over the years, I’ve sought out local nurseries that I trust, and use mail order if I can’t visit. I do like to visit, though, and make a point of trying to get into the back areas, looking out for piles of discarded dead stock (a bad sign).
    kininvie read my post..The Joy of Mud – Part 3 – the endgameMy Profile

  • I have had the same experience too… although I am fortunate enough not to have lost any. But the quality does leave a lot to be desired in some cases.

    It is always a surprise when I receive something that is better than expected…so I always expect the worst now and then I am not disappointed. ;)
    amanda read my post..CLIMBING ROSEMy Profile

  • appreciate this feedback. Seems most of us do not buy plants online and when we do have had such varied experiences. Nursing sick plants should be a preference not a necessity!
    - bulbs are the safest bet, Deb
    - very disappointing isn’t it Holley when plants start out half dead
    - true PP, mail order is no excuse for palming off poor quality plants on to us
    - do write up Frances, as genuine reviews are helpful, even if experiences vary between customers
    - like the description Kininvie of shocked plants from southern climes! I try and avoid the mega companies too
    - if only the cost of plants + delivery warranted the lucky dip approach, Amanda but I like your style

  • Thanks, first up, for the plug. Speaking as a nurseryman though it’s a bit daunting – I’d better not slip up had I? ;-D
    A few points spring to mind.
    Firstly, speaking as a fanatical gardener I’m as quick as anyone to gripe about bad service from nurseries. I use mail order regularly but generally from a handful of reputable specialist growers (I can provide a list if anyone’s interested) and while I’ve had a few disasters (and I’ve complained vehemently, with mixed results) by far the majority of what I’ve bought have been satisfactory to excellent. The 10% success rate mentioned above would be, as far as I’m concerned, outrageous.
    Speaking as a nurseryman though I hope I don’t sound too defensive if I plead for some allowances to be made for the practicalities of growing plants. They don’t just sit still on the shelf unchanging like a tin of beans or a pair of shoes waiting to be bought. They grow. I might be selling small newly potted specimens of one species next to a mature specimen of another that will need potting on very soon. I try to avoid the extremes – newly potted cuttings and seedlings on the one hand and pot-bound stock on the other but it’s always a balancing act, especially for the smaller grower.
    Finally (phew!) There is an awful lot of rubbish for sale out there. Garden centres generally seem over priced and while the plants may look lush and green they often don’t establish well in real garden soil. DIY shops and supermarkets and those glossy magazine promotions I wouldn’t touch with a pair of long-handled loppers.
    There are a good few excellent specialist nurseries and I hope I will in time be among them. They really know their stuff and they care (and they tend to be cheaper than the garden centres too.)
    Oh, and the p&p? If you can go and get what you want locally so well and good, but if not, compare the carriage charges with your travel expenses…
    Steve @ Brighton Plants read my post..Seemannia (Gloxinia) nematanthodesMy Profile

    • thanks so much for all this input Steve. Lots of good advice and have made note how often it is the spoilt garden centre plants that cannot cope with real garden conditions!. I do make allowances but you would never send out plants looking like the above?! Look forward to my order :)

  • Laura, As a nursery owner, I too have some comments on what you said. You seem to indicate that your local nursery sells poor quality plants for high prices. In that case, I agree with you–I wouldn’t shop there either. But I find that many gardeners complain about the high price of quality plants while bemoaning the poor quality of mail order plants they have received.

    Price is directly related to quality. Nurseries that sell mail order plants for low prices (there are mail order nurseries who sell quality plants but not cheaply) generally can’t afford to care for the plants (hence root bound pots) or grow them for as long (hence poorly rooted specimens) as a reputable retail nursery that cares about its plants. They buy in bulk with the intent to throw away anything that they can’t ship. I intend to sell (and usually do sell) every plant that I buy or propagate. By the time it leaves my nursery I have probably touched it dozens of times. That care costs money and is reflected in the price of my plants.

    The care received by plants at big box stores is even more lamentable. This is not even going into the hidden costs of supporting the mass production of plants using massive quantities of water, toxic chemicals, and workers who are not adequately taken care of in any sense of the word. When the plants cost you a pittance to produce, it is not economically justified to care for it when you can throw it away.

    I know many gardeners do not understand this and believe that all plants are the same so price is the key factor. However, plants are livinh things not canned goods and a poorly cared for specimen will never recover even if it looks fine when you buy it.

    Thanks for listening, Carolyn
    Carolyn @ Carolyn’s ShadeGardens read my post..The Weird and the WonderfulMy Profile

    • I thought of you when I wrote this post – if only I were able to shop at your nursery, Carolyn. Local London garden centres charge high prices to pay the rents, staff etc (that is another topic!) so in such circumstances, the price does not reflect quality. I do not want cheap plants but ones that have a strong enough start to cope with my tendering! A plant is for life not Christmas ;)

  • Only bought plants by post once, years ago so can’t remember who from. They were a disaster, tiny weak plants unlike the lovely specimens in the catalogue.

  • I’m stateside, but I haven’t had any problems buying through mail order and have bought many plants this way. Generally, I go online to order because I’m too lazy to fill out forms and send checks. I typically check on Dave’s Garden for mail order company reviews in the Garden Watch Dog section. There are mail order companies listed in the UK and globally as well on the site:

    Sorry you had a bad experience! I probably would have cut away the bottom and plugged it in the ground if I got a good deal on it.
    AngryRedhead read my post..Make a (Better) Banner for Blogger (Part 2)My Profile

  • I’d go along with almost everything Carolyn says there (I must check out your place. Do you have a website?) except that I don’t see price as related to quality at all. The best nursery around here in Sussex, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking, is Graham Gough’s nursery, Marchant’s at Laughton. He sells a fabulous range of top quality herbaceous perennials and some shrubs, many uncommon and most propagated on site. His typical price is less than £5 for herbaceous, £7 for woody plants (and they’re good strong specimens too.) On the other hand go to almost any garden centre and they’ll be selling the more common mass-produced equivalent for £7-8 for herbaceous, £10 – 12 for woody plants. And I’d say Marchant’s is fairly typical of independent nurseries though some seem to take their lead from the big chains, and it’s not because they’re better – quite the reverse in fact. (I take the point about London rents btw)
    Also Graham’s plants are just raring to go when you put them in the garden, unlike some…
    He’s kinda my hero…
    Steve @ Brighton Plants read my post..Buddleia colvilei – large leaved formMy Profile

  • I might as well come clean about those nurseries I deal with and generally rate – since you’ve not withheld names in the original posting. I have mail ordered plants from Beeches in Suffolk, Cotswolds Garden Flowers, Paul Christian, Pottertons, Edrom, Kevock, Glendoick and regularly visit Crug Farm, Madrona, Ford Abbey, Chris Pattison, Spinners… I could go on – all to good effect. Some do extremely rare stuff and those can be very pricey (Crug and Paul Christian most obviously) Otherwise they all but one tend to charge much the same prices as Marchant’s. Only Madrona stood out as unusually pricey. Their stock is good, but not exceptionally so.
    Beeches and Cotswolds can be a little hit and miss but forgivably so. I think they just try to do too much.
    Steve @ Brighton Plants read my post..Buddleia colvilei – large leaved formMy Profile

  • Sorry to hear you had such a bad experience Laura. I’ve never bought from Gardens4You so thank you for the warning, I’ll not change that! I’ve had such mixed quality from Crocus that I now just use their website to help me find things I then buy elsewhere! I’ve given up on T&M since I yet again got sent the wrong things. One of my best online experiences was Architectural Plants (though not for a few years now) – fabulous quality but expensive delivery. Best recent was Beth Chatto’s nursery, fabulous quality and great value too. Having grown a lot more perennials from seed now I have more respect for the places that do still sell good quality plants, it isn’t easy.
    Janet/Plantaliscious read my post..Of blight, help, and new loveMy Profile

  • I have had some bad experiences at times, and then I do not buy from that particular nursery again. I have also had bad experiences from other nurseries, but they have been very good about refunding or replacing the plant or plants. I buy my plants from varied sources, and I cannot say I want to change that. Sometimes it is from a specialty nursery, sometimes it is from a ‘mass market’ nursery. I also buy from local nurseries, garden clubs, and plant sales. I like the idea of publishing the names of nurseries that have a history of providing unhealthy or bad plants.
    The Sage Butterfly read my post..Another Use For…A Strawberry JarMy Profile

  • Gosh, Laura this post has really hit the button. Over the years I have bought a lot of plants from various places, like many with mixed results. In the early days I was impressed by named gardeners such as Beth Chatto and Jekka MacVicar. Their plants were always of a high standard and well packed. But it’s true that plants grown in the south of England do not always do so well in Scotland.
    Now my policy is a) grow my own from seeds and cuttings b) buy local (Silverwells gets a mention for range and care of their plants) and c)send from or visit local specialist nurseries in the north.
    Janet read my post.."Red and Yellow and Pink and Green" on Mosaic MondayMy Profile

  • thanks for all your suggestions and comments
    - hello and welcome Bridget, obviously 1st time experience put you off shopping online for plants
    - appreciate you listing the nurseries in detail, Steve as good reference for the future
    - I do check that site AG for info more often
    - have wondered about Beth Chatto, Janet. Seed sowing not my forte hence I rely on plants
    - you are a bit like me SB,sampling across the board
    - had not considered the north/south issue before Janet

  • hello Laura just catching up with the comments on this post, point taken I will post about them, I have been waiting for plants to flower/grow to be able to show photos, the big order I put in this spring was Beth Chatto, the plants that arrived though pot grown were among the best I’ve had, as I live near the coast I now sometimes check to see how far a nursery is from the coast and Beth Chatto mentions strong winds blowing over the nursery, I also now e mail a nursery saying where I am and do they think their plants will grow here, living on a Scottish island one problem I have is some nurseries just don’t send to us and some charge a fortune, I was looking at a nursery about an hour ago and they charge £45 for the Scottish islands but only £22 for northern Ireland!! Frances
    island threads read my post..Prayer flag 4My Profile

  • I’m lucky in that we’ve got a good many small, specialist nurseries in the South West and, as I travel around the region on business, I can often fit in a visit. The problem is that you end up coming away with more than you intended – and sometimes something completely different!

    I’ll use mail order on occasions – but only for things I wouldn’t be able to get locally. No bad experiences so far – but I’m about to do some ordering so that could change.
    John Richmond read my post..Some views of the garden – part 1My Profile

  • I haven’t purchased many plants online. I have had both good and horrendous experiences, but overall I prefer to see the plants in person. I agree, your root bound pot is simply not acceptable. The plant may grow, but it’s likely to be set back, and may never reach its full potential. Here I’m fortunate to have some very well stocked nurseries, including specialty native plant nurseries. For the rest, if my greenhouse is ever unboxed and installed, I hope to mostly grow my own from seed and cuttings!
    Curbstone Valley Farm read my post..Lotus scopariusMy Profile

  • My business partner owns a nursery and I am there daily. I see the work involved in growing, caring and shipping. Granted trees and shrubs are not normal mail order stock, but the they do get shipped out sight unseen via truck often. Never would his plants be in the condition you showed. I buy bulbs mail order, but never perennials. I want to see what I am getting.
    Donna read my post..Painting With LightMy Profile

  • Wow Laura your topic got people writing! Except for some bareroot trees, which were a wonderful purchase last spring, I haven’t mail ordered plants in some years– we have many great nurseries in Oregon or I grow from seed or bulbs. Shipping becomes more and more of a cost issue and the plants have to be small even if healthy. Thanks for sharing your mail order issues about this, helpful to all.
    Linniew read my post..Who’s in charge here?My Profile

  • Oh what a disappointment Laura :( I am lucky enough to have an excellent nursery within a five mile radius but do occasionally buy online. Taking heed of the advice to buy plants grown further north, I have had nothing but positive experiences with orders that I have placed with : Their plants have always been happy, healthy and arrive in excellent condition. I have also has some positive experiences via Ebay.
    Anna read my post.."Hi Lily"My Profile

  • - appreciate the Beth Chatto recommendation Frances & look forward to your review. Shipping costs high because they come by boat?!
    - I know that over-buying temptation John but how lucky you are to have good local nurseries
    - thanks Clare for the reassurance that I was not over-reacting
    - that’s why quality checks are so important Donna
    - imagine what Tillie would have said, Linnie :(
    - great link, Anna and it’s the disappointment which irks