A lot of people are ordering plants online this year, and although I’ll always suggest you check an independent garden center first, there are a lot of reasons to order online (from what are almost always also family-owned small businesses). But if you’re new to ordering online, it can be a little scary.
Fortunately, I’ve spent the last 15 or so years doing extensive online plant shopping research all for the purposes of writing this post. Someone has to do this hard work, you know.
The first time I ordered plants through the mail there was a catalog order form involved, so that gives you an idea of when that was. What showed up was the puniest, most pathetic little things I’d ever seen and they stood no chance of surviving, which they didn’t. It was many more years before I dared try again.
A lot of things have changed in remote plant shopping since then. When’s the last time you saw an order form stapled into a catalog? The plants are bigger, the shipping is quicker, the packing is better and the selection of plants you can find is absolutely outstanding.
And that’s why I buy plants online. The things I’m buying usually can’t be found near me. Often I shop at specialty nurseries whose owners are an absolute wealth of knowledge and if you call in the off-season they’ll be happy to give you share that knowledge with you (don’t expect this level of attention if you call in March through May when they are probably working 14 hour days shipping and caring for plants).
I’m going to share my mail order experiences with you in a bit, but first, a word about what you should expect from mail order plants.
- They are likely to be smaller than you might expect. They might be shipped out of their pots, or have a smaller rootball than you’re used to seeing in nurseries. It’s all about the shipping costs. Look for information on the site about pot and plant sizes and how plants are shipped so you know exactly what you are getting. I once bought a $35 grafted ginkgo and it showed up as a 6-inch tall stick in a 2-inch by 4-inch pot. When I called to inquire, the company directed me to their pot size information and sure enough, it was all there. Lesson learned.
- The plants might be cut back before you receive them. This means that they won’t look very exciting when you see them, but it’s easier to ship them and for some plants better for the health of the plant.
- Get them out of the box as soon as you can, even if you can’t really deal with them yet. There will always be planting or care instructions in the box, so follow them. Usually you’ll want to water them and put them in a protected area out of baking sun, high wind or extreme temperatures.
- Understand the company’s warranty before you buy. Pretty much every company will guarantee that they’ll arrive in good condition, but more and more companies are eliminating guarantees. My guess is that this is because people don’t take care of a plant and then they call to complain that it didn’t live. DON’T DO THIS! You’re ruining plant guarantees for everyone. Be honest about plant guarantees when they are offered. If you did everything right and it still died, that’s when you use the warranty. Wow, bit of a sidebar there. Anyway, know what the company’s policy is before you buy.
- Shipping costs are going to make you want to throw up a little. I bet they make nurseries do the same. The fact is that shipping plants in a way that protects them requires very specific packing materials and a lot of them. Plants are also usually sent in some sort of expedited manner because they don’t love hanging out in a dark box being knocked around by 14 different drop-kick shipping specialists, so they need to get to you quickly. All that costs money. Very few nurseries offer free shipping routinely, so I’m always wary when I see it being offered.
- If it seems too good to be true (unless it’s at the end of the season) it probably is. Approach non-nursery sellers such as those you find on Etsy or eBay with extra caution.
I promised you a list and a few comments about companies I’ve ordered from, but my best tip for shopping for plants online is to check the Garden Watchdog on the Dave’s Garden website before you order. Here you can search for reviews from real customers on just about any garden-related company. If you find it useful, return the favor and leave a review there after you order so the site continues to be a great resource.
Companies with whom I’ve work before or who have sent me plants for trialing or use in my garden are marked with an asterisk. I can’t think of a case in which I’ve received plants from a company gratis that I haven’t also paid for an order from, so I have experience from the “anonymous customer” side of things as well. For the purposes of not looking like the insane middle-of-the-night online shopper that I am, I’m limiting this to plant and bulb purchases, not seeds or other gardening essentials (and they are all essentials).
Agrecol: This is a lovely native speciality nursery in Wisconsin. They specialize in growing plants for a lot of local landscapes, but they do mail order as well. A couple years ago I needed several Echinacea pallida STAT (as one does) and I gave them a shot and was really impressed with what showed up. A bit of a hidden gem for natives.
Annie’s Annuals: A longtime, well known nursery in California that offers interesting and different varieties for when you’re sick of the same old. I’ve gotten very cool plants from them including the old hairy balls plant and my favorite basil that I use for ornamental purposes, ‘Wild Magic’. Shipping is a killer but it’s worth it to get my hands on almost impossible to find plants.
Avant Gardens: I have zero recollection of this order (I found it by searching my email notifications from years past) but I do remember the plants I got and they were great.
Bear Creek Farms: I ordered dahlias from them this year. Nothing to report year other than that they are here.
Bluestone Perennials: Bluestone is a big operation and they have a huge selection of plants. Look for sale opportunities or their multiple-plant discounts to make the prices more in line with what you receive. I always feel like the plants are pretty small from here, but they are in good shape. If they aren’t in good shape, they seem to have a no-hassle replacement policy. The one time I had to call they just reshipped the entire order, including plants that were in good shape.
Breck’s*: I’ve gotten dahlia tubers and bulbs from them. Good selection with highly approachable prices and everything seemed great when I received it.
Broken Arrow Nursery: I ordered my rare Aralia elata ‘Silver Umbrella’ from here and damn, it’s good. Another plant I got at the same time was a disappointment, but I should have read the size information more thoroughly.
Brushwood Nursery: I buy almost all my clematis (five this year alone) from this clematis specialist nursery. They ship big one-gallon size plants that are mature and full of roots. Order early because they sell out quickly. Free shipping on a one-gallon plant, but honestly I think the free shipping is just because makes the math easier in the end. You will pay more for a clematis here than you will in a local garden center, and it’s worth every penny.
Classic Viburnums: Sick of the same old viburnums? Call this family-owned nursery and then just tell Gary where you live, what you’re looking for and then buy what he suggests. I learned more about viburnums in a phone call with him than I knew from growing them for years. You’ll have to call or email to place an order and you’ll be better for it. (Here’s a post I wrote about it.)
Dancing Oaks: Everything I got was healthy and great. They offered some more unusual varieties, which is always nice.
David Austin Roses: Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I order bare root roses almost every year. I am so impressed with them. They also have a 5-year guarantee, which I’ve used once. You won’t get a replacement plant until the following year, but they are fair about it and I appreciate that. These bare roots grow better for me the first year than any potted roses I’ve ever gotten, via mail or locally.
Digging Dog: Another nursery to find unusual plants and that’s why I go to them. Their website is not fancy, but they know their stuff. I’ve had problems in the past with plants not being available when they go to ship, but it’s a small operation so I get how this happens. The only thing I didn’t love was that when they had to split my order into two shipments I had either pay shipping twice or hold the entire order until everything was ready a few weeks later.
Eden Brothers: I’ve only ordered dahlia tubers from here. Twice I was sent the wrong tuber (which you discover in the middle of summer when it’s far too late to do much about), and I didn’t have the greatest customer service experience when I called to rectify the situation. But what I received were healthy and grew well and the prices were good.
Forest Farm: This is another order I don’t remember, but I apparently ordered Viburnum plicatum toment. Shoshoni and there is no way that plant is in my garden anymore.
Garden Crossings: A good selection of Proven Winners and other varieties, annuals, perennials and shrubs. If you are really hot for a new Proven Winners release this is one of the only places you’ll find it before it has wider release. Impeccable packing, good size on the plants if you order the large size. I order from them at least once a year. (Here’s a post I wrote about one order).
Geraniaceaa: I ordered this year when I just HAD to have a couple of geraniums I was looking for. It was an interesting experience. They don’t charge you before they ship. Instead the include an invoice and you pay when you get the plants. I sort of love that approach. Neat plants and literally the only place I could find the one I was really looking for.
Graceful Gardens: It’s been a number of years since I’ve ordered from here, but I had to look it up to share a delphinium source with someone today. Plants are small but you buy by the flat and things do really well from the get-go. A good way to get a cottage garden look on a budget.
Heirloom Roses: I ordered a potted David Austin rose from them one year when one of my DA’s kicked the bucket and I had a hole I had to fill quickly. The plant was very pricey and much smaller than the bare roots I get from David Austin directly, but it was healthy and still going strong in my garden. I hear great things about them among rose lovers.
Joy Creek Nursery: Good plants, both unusual and easy-to-find. I got large, mature (dividable) perennials from them when I ordered, but the clematis I ordered from here was pretty skimpy (and also priced appropriately). Here’s a post on an order.
Jung Seed*: I’ve gotten excellent bare root plants from here. So long as you’re ready to go with planting them when they arrive, they grow well. I found excellent currants here a couple years ago and they are fabulous. Good size on everything.
Logee’s: The place to go for cool houseplants and tropicals. Plants are not huge, but super healthy and they carry things you will not find elsewhere.
Longfield Gardens*: My go-to for dahlias and bulbs. Really good prices, and most things are packaged in nice quantities. Order early so you don’t miss your favorites. They also have unusual plants (like Eucomis) that can be difficult to find.
Plant Delights: The only problem with the famous Plant Delights is that you are going to want everything. Owner Tony Avent is an esteemed nurseryman who offers plants you truly will never get anywhere else. Shop for unusual things here and pick up the more common plants somewhere else. You will become a better gardener just by reading the catalog. Tony’s descriptions are full of amazing information, including less savory bits. There’s no glossing over a plant’s faults here. I love that. Their plants are not large, but they are incredibly healthy. I can’t resist placing an annual order.
Prairie Nursery: Ordered for the first time this year. I’ll update after I receive plants.
Pond Megastore: This one didn’t go well. They got my zone wrong on my order, shipped my plants a month before I could do anything with them. The plants were just not wonderful to begin with and trying to hold them in a warm place for a month didn’t make the situation better. Full disclosure, this was my very first foray into water plants so I’m sure that didn’t help. I also didn’t contact them after the mistake, so they were never given an opportunity to correct the mistake.
Rarefind Nursery: I had a great experience here several years ago. I ordered a ‘Venus’ dogwood when it was first on the market and impossible to find here. I spoke with them on the phone and they were able to figure out a way to ship me a pretty large tree. The tree lived for many years until the polar vortex pushed it too far.
Romence Gardens: A good place to pick hard-to-find Proven Winners plants at a better price than almost any other online nursery. I got beautiful, big plants last year from them.
Santa Rosa Gardens: I ordered from them back in 2014. I don’t really remember much about it, but I think it all went well.
Select Seeds: Ordered plants for the first time this year. I’ll update after I receive plants.
Silver Star Vinery: I used to buy clematis from this one-woman show specialist nursery, but I think Deb is starting to wind the business down because she seems to have a lot smaller selection than she once did. On several occasions early in my clematis addiction I spoke with her on the phone for recommendations and she was extraordinarily helpful and kind.
Song Sparrow: This nursery, which was owned by Roy Klehm (great peony breeder among other accolades), is now under new ownership. I haven’t ordered since Klehm owned it, but the plants were top notch. I have a tree peony and a small Japanese maple that I got on a late-summer sale from there and they are both still outstanding in my garden. I have also ordered very spendy tree peonies as gifts and they’ve been great. UPDATED January, 2021: I believe Song Sparrow has gone out of business.
Swan Island Dahlias: Amazing selection of dahlias, but quite spendy. This is where you’re likely to find varieties you can’t find elsewhere they do send bonus tubers on medium to large orders, which is quite fun.
Triple Wren Farms: I ordered dahlia tubers from here for the first time this year. The tubers looked great and sprouted nicely. That’s all I have to report so far.
Whitman Farms: This is my absolute favorite place to buy trees online because I simply adore Lucille Whitman, who runs the show. She’s not much for the internet (her nephew helps a bit with the website), but the best way to place your order is call Lucille and leave a message. She’ll call you back when she’s out of the field and she’ll tell you exactly what the tree you order is going to look like and she’ll also tell you if there’s something you should probably be buying instead. This woman is a gem and you should do yourself the favor of ordering something from her. I’ve ordered several trees from her including the Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ that steals the show in my garden fall and the ‘Autumn Moon’ maple I ordered a couple years ago.
I’m certain I’ve missed a few places that I’ve ordered from and I’ll try to go back and update this post as I remember more or order from new places.
I hope this helps a bit as you contemplate online plant shopping. Just remember: You’ll never receive plants via mail that look the same as plants you buy locally, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great plants.