Come winter, there’s a little less to do in the garden. This is the time I walk around, notepad in hand, planning ambitious beds and making lists, even while taking a break from the actual digging and planting. It’s time to daydream and, yes, even pre-order some strange and ugly bits of roots and tubers to tuck into the soil once warm weather returns.
A mailbox full of seed and plant catalogs inspires grand visions. And, lucky us, the internet is a dandy resource for the gardener.
Will online shopping ever replace curling up with a plant wishbook in front of the fireplace on a cold winter night? You know, it just might. The really good websites offer distinct advantages over the paper catalog: The online catalog, for example, can be instantly updated when a certain Asiatic lily or canna hybrid sells out. End-of-season specials can be customized and offered to customers who have shown an interest in, say, hostas. Lots and lots of free advice – too costly to include in the printed catalog – enrich the better websites. Several offer free e-newsletters.
All the big national names are online – Jackson and Perkins (photo above), White Flower Farm, Burpee Seed and Wayside Gardens – but you’ll also find small, dedicated and highly specialized nurseries and plant sites where the owners’ enthusiasm practically crackles across the internet. Here are some of my favorites:
Stokes Tropicals is based in Jeanerette, Louisiana, and provides gingers, bananas, plumeria, bougainvillea and heliconia to nurseries and institutions around the country. (The Houston Zoo is a customer of Stokes Tropicals.) Interested in bananas? The site offers dozens. If you have trouble making up your mind, then choose a collection, such as “best eating collection” or “best ornamental collection.” Stokes Tropicals links to other plant websites, too, so logging on once takes you many places, including (for example) The Plumeria Society,
Banana Tree was launched by Fred Saleet, who raised his first banana tree as a 14-year-old growing up in Pennsylvania. He became so hooked on tropicals that he founded his quirky mail-order nursery in 1955, dedicating it to rare and uncommon tropical flora. I have an ancient Banana Tree paper catalog dated 1991, but the business seems to be wholly on the web now, though still based in Pennsylvania (go figure).
Again, the stock features gingers and bananas, but also cycads, palms, ornamental vegetables and herbs. Ever dreamed of harvesting and roasting your own “breakfast blend”? You can buy the seeds to grow the coffee trees here. Many seeds are available in volume, if you have the need. I like the slightly curmudgeonly way this site is written. The cranky, personal style somehow gives me a feeling of reading the journal of a botanical explorer.
Organic gardeners and those seeking traditional plants should look at the worker-run Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which offers both a printed and downloadable catalog and extensive website. I especially love the earnest catalog, which is printed on rough newsprint with pen-and-ink drawings, no color photos. The company’s pledge is to not knowingly sell genetically engineered seeds, and they offer some 700 varieties of open-pollinated plants. This will appeal to the heirloom gardener looking for old-style food crops, including herbs and sunflowers. You can also find seed-gathering supplies and unusual tools (including a corn mill!). Check out the site’s online tools for planning a garden.
Digging into this website or catalog is like visiting an old-fashioned feed store. It’s fitting, I think, that SESE is based in Mineral, Virginia, not far from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Kinsman Company (photo below) is both online and publishes a free catalog. This is not a source for plants, but an irresistible gift store for gardeners. There’s probably nothing here you can’t live without, but it’s definitely the frosting on the garden cake. Kinsman has one of the best selections of hayrack planters and liners (both coco-fiber and sphagnum moss) that I’ve come across. Look here for hand tools, pruners, obelisks, topiary frames and trellises, gazing globes, brightly colored watering cans, thatched birdhouses, feeders and mouth-blown glass Christmas ornaments from Germany. This is how you reward yourself when the garden is looking very good.
Finally, there’s Floridata. I love this site. When I was performing the community service for my Master Gardener certification, I had to do phone duty, answering the “hot line” and fielding questions from Houston-area gardeners. When the phones were quiet, I used my time to scroll through this site, sucking up the information and studying the photos.
Floridata’s mission statement: “We make an effort to find people that know, grow and love the plants they write about. Our plan is to find dedicated and devoted professionals (landscapers, foresters, botanists, horticulturists, ecologists, etc.) and talented amateur gardeners who will use Floridata to communicate their knowledge and enthusiasm for plants, gardening and nature.”
Houston has a growing zone similar to northern Florida, so the information provided here is spot on. The website is very anecdotal and personal in style; indeed, one might even say the articles and such are a trifle disorganized. Begin by going to the plant lists and look up pretty much anything you can find in a Houston nursery to learn a plant’s origin and culture.
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