To Order Now or Buy Later, That is the Question

It’s the end of January in the Midwest and I am suffering from gardening withdrawal. I’m feeling queasy, irritable, unable to concentrate. I must have plants! Herbaceous perennials, shrubs, small flowering trees, I don’t care! Just something!

box of plants 2

One way to take the edge off of gardening withdrawal is to order plants online. This produces a feeling of satisfaction and calm, at least briefly. I’ve been holding back, though, because I have to go through a period of indecisive fretting trying to decide whether it is better to order online now, or wait to buy plants at the garden center later on.

Of course, some things you just naturally buy at the garden center. Annuals, for example. (Who are these people who spend $9.50 for a single Impatiens plant (plus shipping) from White Flower Farm? I assume that they are either billionaire Wall Street types, or they are on their way to bankruptcy court.)

And some things are best ordered from online retailers. For example: seeds, bulbs, unusual varieties and specialty plants you are unlikely to find at the garden center.

plants for sale

But for other plants, the conscientious gardener has to weigh a number of pros and cons:

  • Online you have the greatest variety and are most likely to get exactly what you want.
  • But at the garden center you can inspect your specific plant before you buy it.
  • On the other hand, garden centers have the annoying habit of only selling plants  once they are in bloom. This can either mean that your plant has been subject to unnatural practices (how else could there be blooming Echinaceas in May?), or that they won’t make the plant available until late in the season (as with Eupatoriums and Ratibidas).
  • At the garden center you get bigger plants, which satisfies your inner child’s need for instant gratification.
  • On the other hand, those larger plants generally mean higher prices. And you often get more plant for your money by ordering bare root plants online. Of course, opening up a box of bare root plants feels a little bit like receiving a shipment of dried squids – not the most satisfying experience for the lover of green things.
  • Also, this is not a big deal, but getting rid of the packing materials that come with your plant deliveries can be a pain. Worst case was when I received a box of plants that had been packed with those styrofoam peanuts – and opened it outside on a windy day. Wind-borne styrofoam peanuts are darn difficult to catch.

As the gardener in charge, it’s my job to make the tough decisions. But it’s a difficult burden.

So how about you? Are you primarily a consumer of horticultural e-commerce or a patron of your local garden centers? Or both? Or do you go the frugal route of seeds, propagation, and pass along plants?

33 Comments on “To Order Now or Buy Later, That is the Question

  1. I do both. But I have to say when I buy online I tend to be more impulsive and I get random things I didn’t research. I also buy way more than I intend to. For me, this is especially true of Old Garden Roses. I have yet to find the perfect OGR for my yard. But I can tell you, I have tried many, many that I bought on impulse from an online catalog when I really shouldn’t have given that they were clearly NOT for my zone. Going into the nursery is so relaxing. I feel like its a mini burst of therapy. So I prefer going to the nursery. But like you I get impatient and I must have plants!

    • I agree, visiting the nursery is therapeutic. I think I’m more inclined to make random purchases when I’m there as opposed to online catalogs, though. I haven’t bought many roses, and the only ones I’ve ordered online were from Heirloom Roses in Oregon. Can’t say I’ve ever had problems with them.

  2. Usually, I get to posts after there have been a number of comments. I’ll have to subscribe to follow up comments. I tend to be too much of a procrastinator to order online, however, now that I have gotten all of the native type plants that are available locally, I’ve taken to ordering seeds online. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered plants online, except for the plant sales we have at our church. I am tempted to try a few bare root plants if I get around to getting them ordered on time. I have also gotten some vegetable seeds from catalogs, but usually find a good assortment locally. A local food cooperative is hosting a seed exchange I would like to go to tomorrow if it works out for me to go, as we have our grandsons on Saturdays. They also sell Seed Saver seeds.

    • Buying plants is one thing I don’t procrastinate about, in fact I have to restrain myself from buying too early. To order bare root plants, check out Prairie Moon Nursery at

  3. I’m pretty disgusted with the local options, but I’ve been burned online as well. I have taken to growing most of my annuals from seed, indoors (marigolds) and out (zinnias). I grow some tomato plants and buy some online. I get most of my seed online, to get what I want. And I like to try something new every year. Not much new at the local garden centers, alas.

    • You’re in the midwest, right? For online, have you tried Prairie Nursery or Shooting Star Nursery? Those are both good for natives. And Bluestone Perennials I’ve found to be pretty reliable for general plant needs.

  4. Until last year, we used a combination of local and online (or, in the old days “mail order from catalogs”. Last year we got tired of excessive shipping costs and bought everything locally. This coming year – I think we are going to be back to a combination of both. Having a small plot of land protects against too many impulse purchases.

  5. Ok I am totally mixed on this. I get my seeds online but I have never ordered plants online. I guess I am hesitant because I want to see them in person which is hilarious because I ordered a CHAIR online. And one would think that you would definitely want to test out a chair in person…you can see where my priorities are! HA! But seriously, I helped my girlfriend with her front garden bed last fall and she ordered several plants online, one being moonbeam coreopsis. When they arrived we were a bit disappointed at how small and sad they looked. I guess I can see the good in both…who knows, maybe I will give it a whirl this year!

    • There are definitely good online plant retailers, I’ve mentioned a few in the comments above. But I definitely know that it is more satisfying to put in a fuller plant, even if the advantage is sometimes only for a season.

  6. Aaagh, I have opened a box of plants with packing peanuts outdoors on a windy day too. Weeks later bright white pieces were still nesting in the weeds where they’d been caught.

    I am a ditherer, and go back and forth between online and local shopping. I really want to support local independent centers,but you list the disadvantages — can’t get exactly the plant planned for a specific spot, they force the blooms, etc. Also, when I want to mass plant, the local stores only have four or five of a plant, even a groundcover, when I need at least a dozen to fill an area. The local stores can’t special order for one customer (you’d think customer service would be the independent’s niche, but I’ve tried, no luck getting more of anything once they’re out of it) so I turn to online sources.

  7. I do both and experience the same ups and downs as you do. I’ve discovered two other satisfying options as well. The first is that a friend of mine has a business account with a wholesale flower company, so I can buy lots and lots of tiny plugs very inexpensively. The disappointment about how small they are is balanced by the number of new plants I suddenly have, and last year (the first year I did it), most of the plants grew very well during the season.

    The second (and possibly more practical) option is that I divide plants with a neighbor with a flourishing garden. I point out plants of hers that I’d like and she gives me a large clump or three and vice versa. We’ve been “shopping” in each other’s yard for years and you can’t beat the price!

    • You’re arrangement with your neighbor is definitely a good way to go. I need to find more people close by who like the same kind of plants I do.

  8. I too have wondered who buys those White Flower Farm annuals (I know who buys the perennials – me!). I shop online as well as at local nurseries. Ideally I’d buy only from the local nursery, but as you said, they tend to offer many plants only when they are blooming, so if you want to buy a lobelia cardinalis in spring, good luck finding it. But online nurseries are a real roll of the dice, and the shipping costs really add up.

  9. Hi Jason, I tend to get bare roots, bulbs and seeds online while plants are typically from the various nurseries and garden centres around us (we’re lucky to have quite a variety to choose from). Occasionally I have bought live plants online and they’re a mixed bag. If I want a specific plant that I know is going to take a lot of finding, I will get it online.

    • Hi Sunil, I think our habits are fairly similar, I buy all my annual plants (not seeds) and about half my perennials from local nurseries, the rest is online.

  10. I used to buy a lot online because I couldn’t find what I wanted…I only have a couple of local nuseries where I buy annuals…and a few NY native nurseries…just finished getting some seeds and will now plan veggies and some annuals I grow from seed.

  11. oh boy, this time of year gardeners are just itching to buy something green!! I feel your dilemma. I usually start with seeds at this point. Figure out my needs for the upcoming veggie garden, a few annual flowers and that holds me back for a month or so. Then I start planning any new additions to the flower garden – any specific plants I think I’ll have trouble finding at local nurseries I start seeking out online. My issue is, I know even if I buy online I’ll still end up at the local nursery. So I have to budget accordingly.

  12. I know that horrible longing. This year I’m in a terrible state as we are still looking for somewhere to live. I’m terrified I’m not going to have an opportunty to plant anything. A visit to the local garden centre is probably going to result in some sobbing and keening.

  13. I suppose its easy to be shocked by the sticker price of the $9.50 Impatiens. However, there are many people who will spend that amount without breaking the bank. I’ll bet few, if any, are billionaires. Mail order firms have a pretty good idea who their target customer is and what such a client is willing to pay. Because gardening is an equal opportunity hobby, it is not unusual to see very costly plants offered alongside affordable ones, even if by doing so, customers of modest means are stunned. Sometimes, I leave a nursery with a broken heart because the most beautiful plant, which I do not yet own, is too costly for me. And then I see other gardeners loading their cars with several of that unaffordable plant.

  14. While working so many years in the garden center I never once purchased online…but now, I have a garden, more space, I guess I should look into it. Still trying to figure out what grows best here..

    I loved your hints.


  15. I occasionally order through the mail but because we have so many fabulous plant geeky nurseries in the Pacific Northwest, I almost always find more than what I need at the retail outlets and plant sales.

  16. One of the benefits to living fairly close to White Flower Farm is being able to get to their annual sale in June when all the left over mail order annuals are closed out at $2 each. Last year I loaded up and was able to fill alot of holes in the garden fpr a fraction of the cost.

    Occasionally I buy mail order-usually for woody plants that I don’t think I’ll be able to find locally. I used to think I had a decent local selection until I went to Oregon and Washington last summer…

  17. We tend to do a lot of trading….potted plants, cuttings,seeds, rhizomes and such. Many of our plants come from the big box home improvement stores. Around here, Lowes has clearance racks that are pretty popular. Of course, the local plant shows and sales are the weak spot. Dollars fly for those rare and unusual specimens.-LOL. Good luck on your picks for the spring!

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