How can you tell which mail-order nurseries provide healthy plants and which deliver duds? Here are some tips:
- It may seem obvious, but look for a telephone number or e-mail address in the catalog. (The lack of one is a red flag.) Try calling with a question to determine how easy it is to reach a "real" person and how helpful and knowledgeable the staff is.
- Ask for referrals from friends. A helpful online reference is The Garden Watchdog at http://davesgarden.com/gwd It lists more than 4,000 vendors and more than 20,000 customer reviews, plus a handy Top 30 list of the most highly rated companies.
- Compare prices among catalogs. If a plant is a lot cheaper in one, check the size (usually given in pot size or age of plant). You may find that different nurseries are offering different size plants. If the catalog lists no size at all, beware. You may get a twig in your mailbox!
- Place an order to test plant quality.
Who can resist those pots of blooming daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths sold in stores during the winter? These bulbs are fooled into thinking it's spring, a feat you can accomplish rather easily at home. Most bulbs need a cooling period before they will produce foliage and flower—exceptions are amaryllis and paperwhites, a delicate-blossomed, fragrant species of narcissus (Narcissus tazetta). To force paperwhites, plant bulbs in shallow pots (3–4 inches) lacking drainage holes, and fill with 1–2 inches of gravel or pebbles. Plant bulbs close together with the tops exposed, and water only up to the base of the bulbs. Paperwhites can also be planted in soil in pots with drainage holes; include at least 2 inches of soil beneath the bulbs. Store pots in a cool, dark location until roots develop (2–3 weeks), then place in a sunny spot indoors. Paperwhites usually bloom in 3–5 weeks. Other bulbs need a cooling period during which they will develop roots. A refrigerator or cellar is a good holding area. The amount of cooling time varies with the type of bulb. Narcissus (other than paperwhites) need 15–17 weeks; hyacinths, 10–14 weeks; crocus, 15 weeks. Plant them in soil in pots and place in cold storage for the recommended amount of time. Not all bulbs are suitable for forcing; check plant labels.
- Plants and garden wildlife will appreciate a discarded Christmas tree. Lay trimmed branches over plantings for cold-protection. Or lay the entire tree in a corner of the back yard to provide shelter for birds and rabbits. You can anchor the tree upright near a bird feeder to provide perches—smear branches with peanut butter or suet as an extra treat.
- Place a glass or pan of water near houseplants. The water will provide humidity as it evaporates.