In the mail: Garden catalogs and temptation

Vintage catalog from 1906. — Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr

Vintage catalog from 1906. — Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr

Few things are as enticing to gardeners idled in the dead of winter as poring endlessly over garden catalogs, daydreaming of planting schemes to come.

Let me warn you, friends — those catalogs are tools of seduction. And like any other form of “foreploy” (talk aimed at getting someone to put out), they can be filled with deceit, hyperbole and misdirection. They are designed to make you fall hopelessly in love, even when you and the object of your affection have little chance, once united, of living happily ever after.

Look at those glossy photos of young sprigs in their prime, voluptuous and beckoning. There’s nary a blemish, a blotch, a torn leaf or a ragged blossom. Each individual offered for your consideration is a vision of sweet perfection. Isn’t there something just a tiny bit pornographic about this? Or is there a touch of the airbrush in those glitsy layouts?

Don’t get me wrong — I do love plant catalogs, the more the merrier, and the more eccentric, the better. I suppose it might help to review the basics for those perhaps only now plunging into the wonderful world of mail order buying, that swamp ringed ’round with endless possibilities and hidden pitfalls.

Beware ridiculous prices for short-lived plants like one-year-only annuals and “tender perennials” that won’t live through our winters without protection from freezing temperatures.

It might be worthwhile to invest in a $12 tropical brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, especially if you plan to overwinter the dormant rootstock indoors and eventually grow it on into a 10-foot tree. But annual zinnias at three for $19.95? Puh-leeze! Not only are these extremely easy to grow from seed (at 50 seeds for $1.95), but they resent root disturbance and often can’t be transplanted successfully except when very small.

Don’t be lured into bonding with plants that want to live in the South — they will croak here, leaving you sad and lonely. Most of New Jersey lies in Zones 6b and 7a, with the northwest corner creeping into Zone 6a and a thin band along the southern coast edging into Zone 7b. Plants with higher ratings (i.e., Zone 8 to 10) are not cold hardy; plants with lower numbers are sturdy fellows that can take all we can dish out and more.The lower the number, the farther north plants can live.

Garden catalogs, the stuff of dreams. — Dale Calder/Flickr

Garden catalogs, the stuff of dreams. — Dale Calder/Flickr

Don’t get carried away with new introductions, no matter what the catalog copy writers say. Take reports like “Foot-wide blooms for months!” “Biggest, brightest blooms ever!” “Breakthrough!” and “Rare!” with a tiny little grain of salt. Maybe they are — and maybe they are no great improvement over proven older varieties.

Read between the lines when a plant is described as “extremely vigorous” or “grows fast, covering the ground in record time.” This could be code for “will take over your garden and resist eradication” — as in the case of the variegated groundcover snow-on-the-mountain (Aegopodium podograria), the Japanese honeysuckle and many of the mints. You will rue the day a rampant plant crosses your garden gate and chokes out every other lovely thing you hope to grow. It is evil to sell these garden thugs.

My favorite catalogs are those assembled by true plantaholics, who simply can’t contain their enthusiasm. Since these “niche” nurseries often do offer the unusual and garden-worthy, the problem here is resisting the all but irresistible blandishments. In the purely speculative phase of gardening, you may toy with plant orders in an amount exceeding the gross national product of small Third World nations, but reality will eventually come knocking.

Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery North Carolina ( is notorious for his exclamatory, over-the-top style.

Just a few examples: “If you haven’t grown Arisaema taiwanese you haven’t lived!” “Do you need something bold in your garden but can’t afford a bronze of Dennis Rodman? Try a Mexican verbesina!” “If you want to make visitors stop in their tracks and drop to their knees, here is the hosta for you!” (Hosta ‘Night Before Christmas,’ that is.)

The Roberts Hoffman and Popham, who once ran Fairweather Gardens in Greenwich, NJ were no slouches either. The Roberts made me laugh out loud when I hit this line, buried in a description of a new daylily named ‘The Jury’s Out:’ “This plant does everything but take out the trash and walk the dog!” Now there’s an endorsement.

But wait a minute — a pure yellow day lily that blooms through August and repeats in September? Self-cleaning (no deadheading) with 50 buds per scape? And only $29.95 each?

I surrender. Gimme two.