Gardening by Mail

Leaving aside our unnaturally warm March week, this is the first really springlike weekend, and a long one at that with the commemoration of Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts on Monday.  Lots of things have popped up in the garden, though I suspect many plants never went to sleep during this warm winter.  I’m not sure what I’ve lost; there are some conspicuous holes but it’s still a bit early.  In any case, I always buy a few things in the spring and find places for them, often from some of my tried-and-true catalog sources.

The healthiest and hardiest plants in my garden come from Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, Vermont.  When I started the garden over a decade ago, I wanted to have only heirloom plants, and their little catalogs featured lots of varieties from the 17th through the 19th centuries, along with all the essential information about how to grow them.  I learned a lot from those catalogs, and I still have them, as well as all of the plants I purchased from them.  Now Perennial Pleasures only sells their specialty, phlox (of which they have many varieties that you cannot get anywhere else), by mail, along with a few other plants, but their plant guide (which you can download from their website) remains an essential reference for gardeners.  And if you’re in the Northeast Kingdom this summer, they have a Phlox Festival during the first two weeks of August.

After a couple of summers, I abandoned my “heirlooms only” rule because it was a little limiting, and there are lots of beautiful modern varietals out there that I wanted in my garden.  One particular summer, I became obsessed with alstroemeria, and the search for more varieties took me (virtually) to Digging Dog Nursery in northern California.  Since that time I’ve moved on from alstroemeria but not from Digging Dog, which supplies lots of healthy and well-established plants that you seldom see in regular nurseries.

Another online source of plants you don’t see anywhere and everywhere is Avant Gardens of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I generally drive down there as it’s not too far for me but I know they do a large mail-order business.  Lots of varieties of my favorite perennials, like the masterwort above, and unusual annuals as well.

Seeds have been a mail-order product for more than a century, and one of the oldest US suppliers is Comstock, Ferre & Co. of Wethersfield, Connecticut, a beautiful colonial town just outside Hartford.  Except for a little recent gap during which they were purchased by Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Comstock has been in the business of selling “hardy northern” seeds for 200 years. You can purchase their heirloom seeds online or at their retail location in Wethersfield, a charming cluster of buildings. Their seeds come in really lovely packets, another major attraction for me.  In fact, I am rather ashamed to admit that I have purchased seeds in the past (like the vegetable assortment from Monticello below) simply because I liked the packets they came in.

Now that I’ve shifted the focus of this post from plants to paper I might as well keep going!  Gardening by mail has a long history, and the Smithsonian Institutions Libraries have a great collection of  nursery catalogs from around the world and the last century or so.  Here are some of my favorites:  from a local seller in black and white, and nurseries in England and Maryland in vibrant chromolithographic color.  How different the last two catalogs are:  a rather restrained British offering of “golden” seeds and an exuberant display of Italian-American patriotism in the waning days of World War I.


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