Get 'em while it's cold...

--Web Gardening Editorial, January 1997

In about November of every year, I walk out into my garden alone when it's quiet, and take a last walk for the season. I've usually just finished planting something--shrubs, bulbs, or late fall seeds--so I'm still warm from digging, and I have time to linger on each of my old friends. I think how I'll miss them over the winter, and of how excited I'll be to see them again in a few months, eager to investigate their size and developments, or to nurse their winter wounds. And then I go inside.

By the time the plants disappear under the snow that annually coats our region, my longing for petals, leaves, and knurled bark has grown strong enough that I must comfort myself by glancing over whatever gardening catalogs or magazines I have lying around. Now I'm not one of those exotic gardeners who has seeds shipped in from India to start in January in their scientific bio-greenhouse (where they just happen to be developing their own rhododendron cultivar). I somehow always associated catalogs with that sort of gardener. But a recent experience I had on the Web put my association between plant catalogs and royal-botanical gardeners into interesting perspective.

You see, I used to have questions posted on this page which described some of my gardening problems, and begged readers for answers. One question asked what kind of vine could grow under dry, poor soil conditions. To my surprise, I received an answer that was not just the name of a possible candidate, but also an offer to have the appropriate plant delivered through a Gardening website cum catalog. I must admit, I was always slightly skeptical of (daunted by?) paper catalogs to begin with, but now a website?

I think what reassured me about encountering the traditional garden catalog on the Web was that I had received personal email from a fellow-gardener who seemed to be genuinely trying to help out. The distance that normally exists between me and the flat, anonymous pictures of perfect flowers in catalogs was drastically reduced by that first personal contact. So I thought, why not, and visited the site. It was well laid out, easy to get around in, and offered some neat possibilities not available in a static catalog, like searching by type of plant, and online ordering. Nice, I thought, but not dramatically different from a catalog. I was curious, though: how do they send these live plants around the world? So I emailed my question back to the person who had contacted me. When I read the response that came (so quickly) I realized that I was wrong. There really did seem to be something dramatically different about this Web-gardening nursery.

In the email conversation that ensued between us, Janet Whitfield (who started the Gardeners Advantage the site I have been describing) pointed out some of the differences between her website and traditional catalogs: "We're hoping to respond to customer demands. If someone indicates an interest in a certain plant, we'll see if we can find it. Also, we think nursery growers might like to feature their new plant varieties here for testing consumer interest, before gambling on the mass market." To Janet's list of differences, I would add the one I found most compelling, the personal, immediate contact. Through our email exchange, I began to feel like I was dealing with the manager of my favourite local nursery rather than mailing questions to a catalog company, and perhaps even more than that--remember that Janet had actually visited my garden tour, and was bringing suggestions to me. How many people have you bought plants from who have seen your garden?

I like the Web. I made my living from it as the Website Coordinator of SoftQuad, and now as a web designer with a design company. I like the candour and sense of community that continues to be part of the ethos of the Web. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that ethos merging appropriately with the ethos of gardening. This new kind of Web catalog/nursery appears to be just what I was after to fill the cold winter months. It seems, dare I say it?--down to earth.

I guess you're probably now wondering, "So how do they send live plants?" I might as well let Janet explain it: "We have some plants that ship bare root and some that go in pots, depending on the supplier. Pots can be a concern some states that are fussy--such as California--about the soil carrying certain diseases. All of my suppliers have a great deal of experience shipping plants and have permits to ship to the "fussy" states or they go to the effort of sending bare root. They've already done some consumer mailorder business or they were wholesale shipping around the country."

And what about the suppliers? "I have been to talk with all of my suppliers personally. I like it better that way. Not only is it a lot of fun learning about their businesses, but I get an idea about how they operate and care about their products. I've found them all to be down-to-earth people who really love growing plants and, most important, people I can trust. One supplier has 130 acres where she grows perennials. We'll be getting more of her stuff in the spring. Another has only about 3/4 acre, where she concentrates on low-growing plants, such as ivy, sedum and sempervivum. Her products have been featured in Martha Stewart."

I only have one more question. Do sites like these make the winter easier to endure (being entertaining and intriguing) or the spring seem farther away (all this talk about new plants is killing me!)? If you'd like to find out for yourself, visit "Gardener's Advantage" or send email to

As always you can email me at