Three Very Different Garden Catalogs

The pile of 2014 garden catalogs on my night stand continues to grow. We’ve already talked about Bluestone Perennials and Burpee. Now let’s look at three more catalogs, each engaging in its own way: White Flower Farm, Plant Delights Nursery, and Forest Farm.

wff catalog

White Flower Farm (WFF) is sort of the Williams-Sonoma of garden catalogs. On page two there is the genteel yet ingratiating letter from Amos Pettingill, a fine old-money Yankee name suitable for a company located in Connecticut. I do suspect that Amos’s real name is Stan Ostrowski, and that he speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent. But that’s just a guess.

WFF’s glossy pages are covered with lush, beautiful photographs. They do not have a vast selection, but they do have some very fine plants. I have ordered from WFF only a couple of times, either for varieties they were offering exclusively or when I wanted something larger than is generally available by mail order. In my limited experience, their plants arrive healthy and in excellent condition.

There were a couple of annoying things about the 2014 WFF. For example, now many pages are devoted to listing plants in groupings with no particular logic such as “Bring Back the Classics”, or “Annuals for Every Style”. I like my plants listed alphabetically. If you are going to present plants by group, do it in a way that makes sense – plants for sun or shade, for example.

ffp 2014 catalog

Forest Farm at Pacifica (FFP) is as down home as WFF is upscale. The 240+ pages of this catalog are printed on recycled newsprint. There are some photographs, but I don’t get this catalog for the illustrations. It’s nice, though, that there are pictures of all the staff – an extremely friendly and knowledgeable bunch of people, in my experience.

I go to FFP for its vast selection of affordable woody plants. The plants are smaller, so you have to have a little more patience, though. They carry lots of species that are hard to find at local nurseries. For example, this is where I bought my fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus).  The catalog has over 140 pages of trees, shrubs, and vines – and the pages are almost all text.

FFP is in Oregon, but they carry lots of natives from eastern North America. Their catalog does a decent job of providing plant information, but much of it has to be decoded. For example, of Silphium integrifolium it says: S/M (Prn) (z4) (ENAm) (ENa). You might be forgiven for thinking this means the plant is involved in some kinky activities, but actually it means Sun/Medium moisture, Perennial, hardy to zone 4, from Eastern North America, Eastern Native (those last two seem kind of redundant).

I have two gripes with FFP. First, one piece of information that is often missing is the mature size of the plant, which seems kind of basic. And two, it is odd that a nursery that seems so concerned with the environment would sell some of the worst invasives around, including Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Porcelain Vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), and Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Clean up your act, FFP!

pdn 2014 catalog

Finally, the Plant Delights Nursery catalog (price: 10 stamps or a box of chocolates) is in a class of its own. This is a catalog with character.

For one thing, it is probably the best written and most entertaining of garden catalogs. There are photos, but it’s the writing, comprehensive information, and fascinating assortment of unusual plants that make this catalog worthwhile. Although I have to admit the topical cartoon covers usually leave me feeling like I would probably disagree with the point being made if I could figure out what it was.

PDN seems to carry many plants that are really hard to find. For example, this was the only retailer I could locate that sells Japanese Roof Iris (Iris tectorum). Actually, this is the only plant I’ve ever purchased from PDN, so far. Many of this North Carolina nursery’s plants are not hardy in my zone, but they are still fun to read about.

The catalogs are still arriving, and I haven’t even written yet about my favorite sources for native perennials, so expect at least one more post on this topic.

Have you had experiences with these three retailers? What about other most or least favorite catalogs?

45 Comments on “Three Very Different Garden Catalogs

  1. I would not want to comment on what plants should not be sold in your country but over here Celastrus orbiculatus is a fairly rare, but very garden worthy plant.
    I would guess with your diverse climate zones that a plant might be banned in some States and be perfectly good in others.
    Nice to read about your catalogues. I am doing a post next month on one of ours.

    • I think C orbiculatus is invasive in a very wide area of the USA. There is a North American species of this genus that is not invasive.

  2. I love Plant Delights’ catalog and keep back issues as a reference. Their web site is a good resource as well. My other favorite is Baker Creek.

  3. I haven’t ordered from White Flower Farm but still have one of their catalogs. The pictures are amazing and I will never forget their delightful description of Calamintha nepeta nepeta: ” its wiry, 18in stems present a cloud of dainty, lavender-and-white flowers that start blooming in August and continue without pause until frost, sometimes past. The leaves are a soft mid-green that always looks fresh. When crushed, they give off a rush of tart, minty fragrance that works like smelling salts on a hot day.” I plan on ordering from Forest Farm this year due to their extensive selection of native woody plants. I live about a half hour from Plant Delights and have been to several of their open houses. Their display gardens have a bunch of very interesting plants they are trialling and hopefully will offer for sale in the future. I tend to keep Plant Delights, Sunlight Gardens and Niche Gardens catalogs for reference. I also really like the Select Seeds catalog. Beautiful pictures and good seeds. And Prairie Moon Nursery! They have a fantastic collection of native seeds.

    • Prairie Moon, yes! I haven’t received their catalog yet this year. Also Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. I don’t get Sunlight or Niche gardens, I’ll have to check that out.

  4. I’ll have to remember WFF as Williams and Sonoma! I used to like them a lot (partially because they are only two towns over), but they have changed in recent years and not for the better in my opinion.
    Bluestone Perennials is very solid (though those new pots of theirs…), I really like a company called Select Seeds, excellent heirloom plants.
    I’m glad to see a positive comment on Prairie Moon, as I am thinking of getting some things from them.

  5. Thank you for this useful assessment of a few more catalogs. You are right about Amos Pettingill. You should read Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi, one of the very best North American gardening books ever written. She is very funny about Amos.
    For us living north of the border, reading American catalogs is a rather frustrating activity as many nurseries do not ship outside the U.S. and, when they do, it is often at prohibitive cost with surcharges, $75 for Phytosanitary certificate, minimum order of $100 and higher shipping costs. It is usually OK as long as we limit yourself to seeds from companies that also ship to Canada.

  6. Iris tectorum is available from Niche Gardens and Woodlanders, both of whom are much more affordable. I like PDN but they’re overpriced and the last plants I ordered from them died after they arrived. I ended up sending them photos and getting a refund. It was very frustrating. But the writing is fun to read.

    I order from catalogs on the east coast so FFP wouldn’t be on my list. WFF is just so ridiculously overpriced, I recycle it after I’ve looked at the pretty pictures. I shop extensively with Lazy S’s Farm Nursery (online only), Prairie Moon in MN, and Niche. Brushwood (greatvines.com) and Chamblees Roses are also excellent. This year I’m trying Streambank Gardens. They grow all their own plants are 100% organic.

    • WFF is overpriced, it’s true, that’s one reason I haven’t ordered from them in years. I still enjoy their catalog though. I love Prairie Moon, and thanks to you I’ve discovered the Lazy S website – that’s where I got my Spigelia.

  7. My three favorite catalogs too. I love the description of WFF as the Williams Sonoma of nurseries! You are right about that, and about Amos Pettingill — he’s a character invented by the founder of the nursery, a guy named Wadsworth who had been a Wall St. broker when he bought the nursery back in 1976. I live near Whiteflower Farm and visit often — there are spectacular show gardens and antique buildings. There is an ancient meadow that they mow with horses . . all very beautiful. It’s in a very moneyed and upscale part of the state, very Williams Sonoma indeed : )

  8. Thumbs up for most of the plants ordered from White Flower Farm. Although I’ve killed a few too. I have had some great success and some dreadful failures with Plant Delights Nursery purchases, but some of that may be my fault. They are fun if you want to experiment with unusual plants, but I try not to buy commonly available plants from them, since they are expensive and the often plants are pretty small.

  9. I’ve been out of the garden catalog business for a long time-I’ve never even heard of the last two. I wouldn’t buy a plant if I didn’t know its size at maturity, and I’m surprised that people are still allowed to sell invasives like Oriental bittersweet. We have laws against selling them here.

  10. Nice post because I learned about some new seed catalogs from you and all the commenters! I must look at PMoon and Chiltern. I agree with most, love the WFF catalog to look at. Have purchased a few things (years ago) and was happy with everything. Now, I live in such a different part of the country than CT, that I try to purchase from places that may have had some of the same soil conditions as I have and a bit of a similar climate. The intermountain west does not have acidic soil and not as much rain as most places so I am pretty selective. One of my new favs is Annies Annuals, they have both annual and perennials. Seed catalogs are fun but I need to do more this winter!

  11. I haven’t had experience with these 3 but enjoyed your write-up on them very much. It is always nice to have a bit of a background before jumping in feet first. And I can’t remember if I have asked you about honeysuckles before but I am going to ask you now….When we moved into our home 7 years ago there were 2 honeysuckle shrubs on the south side of our backyard. (not sure what variety) The larger one has a lot of dead branches (that I have tried to cut out) and is always scratched up by various animals. It blooms nicely in the spring but I have noticed that it attracts the most awful insects…not sure if they are white flies our aphids but non the less it is very difficult to grow much underneath as everything gets destroyed. What are your thoughts on honeysuckle shrubs? I do think I will be pulling them out.

    • I would definitely get rid of those shrub honeysuckles. They are probably Amur or Morrow’s honeysuckle, and are terribly invasive in woodlands and other natural areas. There are many native or non-invasive exotic substitutes (though not of the same genus) that I’m sure you would like at least as much.

    • Thank you Jason…I have been torn because my husband likes the privacy that they add between us and the neighbors but they are a bit off in many ways and I know that I can add something that is both native and attractive for the shade bed. Again thanks for your help.

  12. Interesting. I’ve heard of White Flower Farm and it struck me as a kind of Martha Stewart of gardening. Not surprised by your description. The categories would make me crazy too – how are you supposed to find anything?

  13. Love your write-ups and all the great comments. Bought from WFF once, a long, long time ago (pre-internet) – a rugosa for my parents. It was great, but, as you said, expensive. Now I know I can get better value elsewhere. I love all the bulb catalogs. This year is no different than any other – I order too many, and get busy with other things before they’re in the ground… When will I ever learn?

    • Your in Oregon so you have so must have so many great sources for roses. When I buy roses I generally order from Heirloom Roses which is in St. Paul, Oregon.

      • Oh yes, Heirloom Roses are great. Now it seems I’m in Grower’s Central, but back then I lived in Columbus, OH. It seemed you couldn’t find a rugosa anywhere – at least not in the garden centers. What would we do without the internet, huh? Sure makes searching out the goodies easier! 🙂

  14. I laughed so hard at your description of Plant Delights–I spent a LONG time trying to figure out what they were saying with their cover and whether I should be offended or agree. I gave up.

    • I’m pretty sure I disagree with their point, which seems to be expressing sympathy with the Duck Dynasty crowd. I think I’ve read elsewhere that Dan Hinkley is quite conservative politically. But whatever, it’s his catalog, he can put what he wants on the cover.

  15. I just realized I’ve only gotten one catalogue this year…the Forest Farm one! Apparently, my lack of actual orders has been noticed!

  16. Haven’t been perusing garden catalogs much this year, but I heard Tony Avent of Plants Delights Nursery speak at our garden club meeting last year. He’s entertaining and a wealth of knowledge. One day I’ll make it to his nursery but I’ve been warned it is hard to get away without wanting and buying everything. Niche Gardens is a local treasure–I love to visit that nursery. Forest Farm is new to me–will check it out.

  17. I’m having so much fun checking out all the catalogs you’re reviewing and followers are suggesting. Some I used to get ages ago, some new. Excited to try some new things this year.

    • I’m glad your enjoying all the catalogs, both the new and the already known. I also like to try at least one new plant every year.

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