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Catalogs promise a Garden of Eden

Tips for getting the most out of mail-order shopping for seeds and plants.

By Michael LeachCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2007

Many Riches: Green-thumbing through a trove of catalogs is a midwinter pleasure for gardeners.

Casey Bayer

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COLUMBUS, OHIO

No gardening tool is as delightful – and dangerous – as a catalog. Generations of housebound gardeners have spent winter evenings staring open-mouthed at pages filled with countless temptations, from rarities of the Himalayan foothills to the newest hybrid debutantes.

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The best mail-order sources offer not only guarantees but also advice on soil, watering, planting, maintenance, harvest, and storage. Some sell entire border packages complete with planting plans, sort of a floral paint-by-number kit.

It's prudent to remember that catalogs and websites are sales tools, albeit among the most beloved marketing pieces ever devised. Sensible gardeners avoid fiscal irresponsibility by tiptoeing around the prose and checking with other gardeners, local plant societies, arboretums, reference books, and websites before ordering.

They also look for clues, such as All-America Selections (AAS) or All-America Rose Selections (AARS) winners, regardless of the catalog. These independent groups use results from nationwide trials in deciding the top-performing plants.

It wasn't always so complicated.

American catalogs began as little more than plant lists printed on broadsheets in the 18th century, says Denise Adams, author of "Restoring American Gardens." By the end of the 19th century, better communications and railroads helped create a national market for nursery products. Catalogs, with color pictures and often equally colorful copy, were much as we know them today.

Yet a catalog plant, regardless of actual or exaggerated qualities, won't be a success everywhere in the United States.

What's a shopper to do?

Check the annual "best bets" recommendations made by state university extension services, independent organizations, and national horticultural societies. "Our testing process is looking for the varieties that are truly superior in their performance," says Nona Koivula-Wolfram, AAS executive director. Each year, flower and vegetable seeds are grown in test plots across the US. The best receive AAS status. For 2007, three flowers – a celosia (Fresh Look Gold), a petunia (Opera Supreme Pink Morn), and a vinca (Pacifica Burgundy Halo) – and a pepper (Holy Molé) were chosen. But even a recommended plant can falter, given the conditions in your garden and quirks in soil, light, and temperature.

Keeping this in mind, it's still possible to choose plants from several basic categories, from roses to lettuce, with some degree of assurance of their success.

Roses: color may vary by climate

Regional soil and climate differences can alter a rose's color, says Bill Riddle, American Rose Society consulting rosarian in Columbus. West Coast judges working at Midwest shows occasionally seek to disqualify an entry because it doesn't look like the California-grown blossom.