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.
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.
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.
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.
Vigor is also affected by microclimates, areas where the soil may be wetter, drier, warmer, or cooler than the surrounding garden because of wind protection or sunlight reflecting off of a structure. Some of Mr. Riddle's AARS plants, for example, may fare better than those grown a few miles away in the Columbus Park of Roses, one of the nation's largest public rose gardens.
Giving new plants a couple of years to become established can improve a so-so performer. "The second year it might knock your socks off," says Tom Wood, also a Columbus-area rosarian.
Such was his experience with Veteran's Honor, a recent AARS winner. "The first year I grew it, I was ready to give it away," Mr. Wood says. That's why he's waiting another season before passing judgment on the 2007 AARS winners: Rainbow Knock Out, Moondance, and Strike It Rich, which didn't greatly impress him last summer.
Few plants react as dramatically to microclimate as hydrangeas, which have blue flowers in acidic soil and pink in alkaline ones. That's assuming they bloom at all due to the likelihood of buds being killed by winter cold or late frost.
Newcomers, such as Endless Summer and similar ever-blooming, mop-head type hydrangeas, produce flowers on new growth throughout the season, even in places too chilly for other varieties. But these tougher plants don't make a spectacular show everywhere.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden, Endless Summer isn't as successful as oakleaf and other woody types, says Galen Gates, director of plant collections.
Yet farther north in the Twin Cities, where Endless Summer was developed, snow cover seems to give an added edge, helping the plants perform better there.
For best chances of success, give these new hydrangeas light shade and well-drained, moisture-retentive soil, Mr. Gates says.
More helpful tips can be found online at: www.americanhydrangeasociety.org.
On the opposite end of the fussiness scale are daylilies, which generally need only a sunny location, regular watering, and reasonably decent soil to flower.
Yet with 58,643 registered cultivars, how does one choose?
Riding to the rescue are the judges of the American Hemerocallis Society ( www.daylilies.org) who annually give the Stout Medal to the best-performing new plant. The society also honors one variety with the Lenington All American Award, again for stellar qualities in a range of areas, says Kevin Walek, society president, in Fairfax Station, Va.
While some of the newest and best plants can be costly, daylilies are easily propagated and prices fall in a few years for those willing to wait.
When scanning pages for tomatoes, master gardener Annette Swanberg, who is working with the Ohio State University (OSU) Extension Service, looks for what's missing in the description. Regardless of the plant's dependability, disease resistance, and other qualities, "If 'flavor' is missing from the copy, it's probably missing from the tomato," she says.
She also advises buying varieties adapted to a garden's particular growing conditions. A tomato touted as growing well in cool, moist weather should produce in far northern climes.
Among tomatoes that have done consistently well in OSU trials are: Big Beef, a hybrid; Brandy Boy, a cross with the popular heirloom Brandywine and hybrid Better Boy; Caspian Pink, a Russian heirloom; Rose, an heirloom; San Marzano, an Italian heirloom paste tomato; Celebrity, a hybrid that's "always dependable"; Sweet 100, a hybrid cherry; Sweet Million, a newer hybrid cherry; and Sungold, a prolific hybrid producer.
Besides good flavor, being "slow to bolt" or heat tolerant is a virtue with lettuce, one of the least demanding veggies.
Jericho, a romaine lettuce developed in Israel, should retain a sweet flavor in hot, dry summers, Ms. Swanberg says. Others that have done well at OSU include Little Gem, Freckle, Galactic, and Merlot.
To ensure a constant supply, she recommends planting early-, mid-, and late-season lettuces. Then you should have salad bowl companions for all those homegrown tomatoes.
The Mailorder Gardening Association, a trade group of catalog and online sources, has several shopping suggestions:
• Buy plants appropriate for your climate and garden's conditions.
• Know the company's guarantee.
• Keep a record of your purchases.
• Have the garden ready to plant before the shipment arrives.
• Open the shipment immediately and follow care and planting directions. Report any problems at once.
• Compare varieties based on their scientific name, not their common name, such as daisy, which can mean a number of very different plants.
• Bareroot: Dormant plants shipped without soil around the roots.
• Potted plant: Plants grown and shipped in small containers.
• Resistance: A plant's ability to withstand certain diseases with little serious damage, a plus for those averse to sprays and other maintenance.
• Treated seeds: Seeds treated to control some type of disease. Don't eat these; plant them.
• Sows freely or quick spreading: Turn your back and this plant may carpet the yard.
• Slow to establish: Practically a bonsai, which is an advantage for those who dislike pruning.
• Blooms again in fall: Unlikely that the encore will match the big show in spring or early summer, but added color is always welcome.
• Dwarf: Often used to describe conifers and other woody plants, this term may mean a plant maturing at 20 feet instead of the typical 80 feet. Always confirm mature size before ordering.
Sources: the Mailorder Gardening Association, various experienced gardeners.