Check it out before buying garden plants sight unseen

That "amazing" plant promised by the splashy ads to outperform all others in growth, beauty, and production may cost far more in aggravation and disappointment than the "incredible", bargain price asked for it.

Trees that shoot up with the speed of Jack's beanstalk, strawberries as big as saucers, and leaves in every color of the rainbow borne from a single tuber are the stuff of dreams that are tailor-made for wishful thinkers.

Before accepting such high-sounding claims at face value, weigh them in the cold light of truth.

Plants that fail to live up to expectations, or to even live at all; delivery that comes late or never, letters of inquiry that return no satisfaction or go unanswered altogether: These are some of the risks that come with buying blind. But in such instances federal and state agencies stand sternly on the side of the public and are ready to enforce the rules.

One way to beat the unscrupulous at his own game is to adopt the slogan of the US Postal Service.

"If something promises to work miracles, it is probably a miracle if it works." With that pessimistic attitude in mind, begin reading the fine print and look between the lines for what isn't there.

Some plants advertised as extraordinary are, in fact, out-and-out weeds or of inferior quality, variety, or grade. Moreover, they may belong to varieties commonly available, carry one or more undesirable traits, cause difficulty in culture or require special care, produce far less flowers and fruit than the multicolor advertising says, lack resistance to insects and disease, or die back to the ground when the temperature drops.

"If a plant sounds too good to be true, chances are it isn't," adds the Postal Service. When in doubt, check the facts with an agricultural extension agent, a trusted nurseryman, landscape architect, teacher, or other horticultural expert. Better yet, deal only with established firms and be sure to compare prices locally.

Deceptive plant dealers resort to all kinds of tricks to stay in business. Besides offering a variety of products promoted under different trade styles, they frequently advertise by an assortment of names, although an investigation may prove that all are listed to the same parent or holding company.

(One large East Coast firm, for example, operates under at least 25 names.)

Some make it a practice to go out of business altogether following each new promotion, closing shop in one state and then moving to another, one jump ahead of a lawsuit. Even when legally forced to halt a violation and required to pay a stiff fine, or agreeing to return orders and money rather than face court action, a company is still free to begin advertising the same plants under different, equally fraudulent claims, with each new offense constituting an entirely new case.

There is another angle to the misleading plant ads which is often overlooked.

Delay in delivery is often timed to the date when a tree or shrub will barely make it into the ground before the onset of cold weather. The buyer, now distracted from the real reason for his purchase -- namely, superior performance -- becomes more concerned for the plant's well-being.

Survival becomes the larger issue. If the plant lives, he considers himself fortunate, no longer remembering that this wasn't his purpose in buying it in the first place.

To comply with new Federal Trade Commission regulations governing mail-order deliveries and warranties, mail-order firms must either deliver merchandise on time or allow customers to cancel their orders and receive a prompt refund.

Investigations by the Postal Service occur partly through customer complaints , but are also initiated by the department itself when encountering advertising that appears questionable or sounds too good to believe.

William T. Alvis, attorney for the Postal Service, says: "The Postal Service has a split personality. On the one hand, our livelihood comes from business mailers. It is in our interest to have a good healthy mail-order business. But we also have the responsibility to see that the public is not misled."

The Garden Writers Association of America is an outspoken critic of deceptive mail-order advertising, believing it to reflect on the garden industry as a whole.

Corinne W. Willard, president of the association, speaks for the group when she says that most companies that advertise by mail are highly reputable. Members of the Mailorder Association of Nurserymen subscribe to a strict code of ethics. Look for the logo as a sign of a company's reliability.

A review of violations alleged by various consumer protection agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Postal Inspection Service, Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Better Business Bureaus in several states, gives clues of misrepresentations to watch out for.

In evaluating plant ads, seek answers to the following:

* In which regions of the country are the plants hardy?

* What quantity of seeds, bulbs, or plants are offered rlative to the price?

* Is the variety identified?

* If an offer is made out of season, will the shipment be made at the appropriate planting time, both for the plant as well as the area?

* What are the conditions for refund or replacement? Must the merchandise be returned; and if so, who pays the cost?

* What are the terms of the guarantee: Does it begin with the date of the order or the date of delivery; and if the latter, what happens if the shipment is late? Similarly, if shipped during the dormant season, is that taken into account?

* What is the age or size of the plants relative to that required for the production of the quantity of fruit or flowers promised?

* Are the plants really of a desirable variety or of one likely to cause problems?

* What is the company's record for making refunds and deliveries on time?

* How do the claims of performance compare with the descriptions in recognized horticultural references or in the opinions of local experts?

* Are the so-called bargains really cheaper than similar or better grades to be found in local outlets or in proved mail houses?

* Where the reports of "experts" are cited to substantiate the claims, how specific are the references?

* To what degree is the buyer protected if the plants are damaged or die in transit?

* Do you have the conditions and knowhow which are necessary to grow the plant?

To learn more about your rights, send for the free bookets: "Shopping by Mail? You're Protected" and "FTC Buyer's Guide No. 2, Unordered Merchandise." Address your request to: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Room 130, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580.

When ordering merchandise by mail, be ready for possible trouble by keeping the originals or copies of all papers connected with the transaction: The ad itself; your order, check, or money order number and date; postmarked envelopes (to determine the jurisdiction of the postal authorities); and any other correspondence. Do not send the originals when making claims.

Before informing the federal or state authorities, write to the company and try to settle the matter. Keep a carbon or photocopy of your complaint. If no reply is received in 30 days, or if no effort at an adjustment is made, send a second letter to the company, but also say that copies are being send to:

* The attorney-general's Consumer Protection Division of the state in which the mail order firm is located.

* Office of the secretary, Federal Trade Commission, Room 701, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580.

* Chief Postal Inspector, US Postal Service, Washington, D.C. 20260.

* Jane Foster, president of the Mailorder Association of Nurserymen, c/o Jackson & Perkins, Medford, Ore. 97501.

* Mail Order Action Line Service, Direct Mail Marketing Association, 6 East 43d Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

* The publication (if a newspaper or magazine) in which the ad appeared.

Send your second letter to the company by registered mail. Consumer protection agencies say that by this extra attention, "95 percent of the companies will come through with a satisfactory solution to your problem."

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