As you become an experienced gardener, you will want plants that you have a hard time finding locally. The whole new plant situation is a Catch-22: If people don't buy new plants, then stores won't stock them, and if they are not in stock, people can't buy them. Big box stores often have very little variety in most plants. They just stock the few species that locally sold well in the past. Many local garden centers are not much better. If people don't buy the new varieties, it is not worth the space and labor to take care of them. So, if you want new exciting colors and plants that are often easier to care for, you need to ask your local garden center for them. Or, search out the specialty garden center in your region that will take the time to find the plants you want.
Catalogs are a great way to get plants that are special, new, rare or hard to grow. Your local garden center can't stock 300 colors of daylilies, iris or every kind of peony, but somewhere out there is a grower with a catalog that does have all the plants you want.
If you want to buy plants or seeds through a catalog, it helps to understand some of the definitions you will find. The term "annuals" is used for plants that sprout, bloom, produce seeds and then die all within one year. "Perennials" will live for several years or even many decades. "Tender perennials" need extra protection from winter weather.
You will need to know which hardiness zone you live in. Originally, hardiness zones were only used to describe how cold the winter's lowest temperatures reached. Now there are also hardiness zones for the effects of the summer's heat. There is more than one source of cold hardiness zone maps, so most catalogs will show an example of the one they are using.
Hybrid vegetables are often more tolerant of insect or disease problems, while the terms "open pollinated," "heirloom" or "antique" are used for older varieties that may not look very pretty, but may taste better and won't be found in the grocery store.
Tomatoes that are listed as determinate will stop growing taller at the height listed, while indeterminate tomatoes will just keep on growing all over the place and will need to be staked, caged or tied up.
Don't be fooled by plants that are listed as winners of meaningless prizes. See who awarded the prize. If the plant was grown in trial gardens and won an award, it is a worthy plant. Look for All-America Selection winners, All-America Daylily Selections and All-American Rose Selections.
Some catalog companies will supply a substitute if the plant or seed you ordered is out of stock. If you would prefer your money back, make sure you note on the order form that you don't want substitutes.
As with any financial transaction that occurs through the mail, you should keep photocopies of your order. You should use a credit card, check or money order to safely pay for your order. Carefully read the directions so that you place your order correctly. This will help to eliminate delays caused by the company.
Catalog companies that are a part of the Mailorder Gardening Association are reputable and will work quickly to resolve problems. The organization is 75 years old and not only represents the catalog companies, it also sponsors the Green Thumb awards for new plants and products. It also runs a program in which hundreds of schools receive Dutch bulbs for use on their school grounds to help kids learn about gardening. Order some catalogs today - it is time to start dreaming of summer.
E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, Kendall County unit educator, University of Illinois Extension at firstname.lastname@example.org.