Buying dreams on dry sticks in January

February 04, 2007|By Susan Reimer

I ONCE PURCHASED DIRT from a mail-order garden catalog, and my children have never let me forget it.

When it arrived, in big bags in bigger boxes, I opened it in the garage, and my son reacted with stunned silence, rare for him.

Then he threw himself on the garage floor, clutched his heart and started howling about the squandering of his inheritance.

"Bad news, Joe," I said. "There isn't one."

I could have tried to defend the purchase - this was special dirt, specially concocted for special planters - but it would have been a waste of breath. My family was still trying to get over the fact that I purchased little sticks with dried leaves through the mail.

January was Mail Order Gardening Month - don't ask me who decided that - and I am on the mailing list for just about every catalog.

Someone must have mentioned, when the gardening catalog editors were last together, that I was good for dirt and dry sticks, so everyone wrote down my name and address.

Camille Cimino is head of the Mail Order Gardening Association, headquartered in Elkridge, and she says her organization's 105 members represent only a fraction of what's out there.

"Everything from Burpees to the small mom-and-pops who are selling their extra herbs," she said. "There are indications that there are thousands of mail-order outlets."

The association was formed in 1934 and gardeners began ordering live plants by mail in 1934, so this business is not a product of the age of the Internet.

But, despite the best efforts of people like me who even buy their dirt from catalogs, the mail-order share of the gardening market has hovered near 7 or 8 percent for years.

"It has been steady for a long time," said Bruce Butterfield, research director at the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.

"When Home Depot and the big chains jumped in the gardening market about 10 years ago, that put pressure on the lawn and garden centers and they, in turn, cherry-picked the best stuff from the catalogs."

Those gardeners who purchase through mail-order catalogs are looking for something different or exclusive or rare. And they must be patient enough to accept plant material that is, literally, not much more than a stick and a dried leaf.

"People are in a hurry," said Butterfield. "They want their plants big. For that, they have to go to the garden centers."

Susan Iglehart of Glyndon, who turned her habit of giving away her extra seedlings into a sprawling business, ordered 80 different varieties from her catalogs this winter.

She will generate about 10,000 seedlings for sale in May to the gardeners on her mailing list.

"I think I find one thing in each book," she said. "Compared to the lawn and garden centers, it is just night and day. The total numbers that you are choosing from are so tremendous.

"We'd only see a tenth of the seeds if we were going to a store. And there wouldn't be any room for imagination," said Iglehart, who found a purple, almost black, poppy in a catalog that she is particularly excited about this season.

If catalogs have a problem, besides the immature plants, it is the cost of shipping and handling, which can turn buyers off.

"It is hard for somebody who is spending $20 for plants to spend another $10 for shipping," Cimino said.

"Our challenge is to find creative ways to price products so that we don't turn people off."

So, the catalogs keep coming. Dozens of them, pounds of them. Each with extraordinary pictures of tomatoes, peonies, roses or dahlias on the cover.

"I call them a psychological spring," said Butterfield. "They come in January, when the gardener can't get out there. They are dream machines."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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