I have been buying plants by mail order. On the whole I am a fan of mail order. You can go to specialists who list a far bigger range of whatever it is you are interested in than your local garden centre will offer. You can read up on unfamiliar plants at your leisure and so discover whether they will invade the entire border, almost certainly die in their first winter, or otherwise prove unsuitable without being swayed by their charms in the flesh. I would not have bought Coronilla varia if I had read the online comments about how it was suitable for stabilising embankments, and you would not buy Rubus cockburnianus if you had been reading this blog. Small nurseries who only sell online and at their local markets are frequently cheaper, not having the running cost of a garden centre to cover. Even allowing for delivery charges home shopping can be a net saving, especially once you've factored in your own time and petrol.
Top marks in the latest sortie into mail order plant buying go to Ashwood Nurseries. Owner John Massey acquired the nursery fifty years ago as a teenager, fresh from school. He now holds the highest honour awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour, for his work in hybridising new varieties and his astounding displays at RHS shows. I bought some of his hellebores a few years ago, feeling terribly extravagant, and they were superb plants. This time I went to Ashwood for salvias, another of their specialities. The species I really wanted was Salvia tubiflora, which has orange flowers, and while I was at it I bought the red 'Royal Bumble' which the Systems Administrator had admired at Chelsea and a pale blue Salvia patens, to make myself feel better about the delivery charge. I'd have bought the dark purple 'Nachtvlinder' as well but they were sold out for 2017. My email enquiry about whether it would be coming back into stock this season was answered promptly, and my plants arrived within forty-eight hours of my placing the order. They were packed in a tall, Ashwood branded box, pots secured in a box within-a-box at the base but leaves and stems free to breathe the air in the box rather than wrapped and sweating. The carrier had obeyed the injunction to keep the box the right way up and nothing was broken, which is an achievement in that salvias can be brittle plants. Ashwood's prices are not the cheapest but neither are they the most expensive. My only regret is that things seem to come in and out of stock quite rapidly and are not available throughout the year, so it can be difficult to combine all the things you would like to buy from them into one order.
I am a bit cross with Hayloft and have no compunction in saying so publicly, because Hayloft are big enough to look after themselves. They keep taking out full price advertisements in the gardening magazines, so it is not as if they were some enthusiastic small grower fresh out of college who had not yet got a feel for how many cuttings their stock plants would yield in a season. I had not used Hayloft before, but succumbed because they had Arctotis 'Flame' which I have been fussing about obtaining since admiring it in the Hillier Gardens a couple of years ago. I was reconciled to not finding it and then my desire was reignited when somebody used it on their Chelsea stand, only when I looked at their website afterwards they did not actually sell either of the two plants on their display I should have liked to buy. So I drew a deep breath and ordered three 'Flame' from Hayloft, and while I was at it some very young, very cheap hellebore plugs to grow on and use in the planting up the side of the wood. I like hellebores, and rabbits do not eat them. And I also succumbed to a pink variety of Arctotis on the basis that you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb and they would look good with the pink dahlias and Zinnia. The delivery date for all of them was indicated on the website as 9 June plus or minus 14 days, and I'd already checked that only one delivery charge applied even if the plants came in more than one delivery.
Two boxes arrived with Monday morning's post, which turned out to be the Arctotis and one lot of hellebores. The hellebores were fine, but Arctotis looked dreadful, limp and yellowing with some dead and mouldy leaves. I wondered how long they had been in the post. I don't know whether the Royal Mail's forty-eight hour delivery service counts Sunday as a day, when there are no deliveries on Sundays, but even if it did count then Hayloft would have had to dispatch the plants on Saturday, and I had a sneaking suspicion that was not very likely. If they'd sent them on Friday that would have been silly, since they couldn't arrive until Monday. If they had been posted on Thursday that meant the Royal Mail had messed up the delivery. The plants looked as though they could have spent four days in their plastic tubes inside the boxes. I cleaned them up, potted them into nine centimetre pots and stood them at the airy end of the greenhouse. After twenty-four hours they had started to look less yellow and more grey, which is the colour they are supposed to be. By this afternoon more leaves had died, but the shoots looked as though they might recover. I emailed Hayloft on Monday to query when the package had been dispatched and warn them the plants looked pretty sick, so that if they didn't recover I'd be in a stronger position to complain, but I haven't heard back from them.
The third order was from a nursery in north Lincolnshire which I have used before. I found his website originally when I was searching for somebody who might have Verbascum 'Gainsborough' in stock, and discovered he listed all sorts of quite unusual and hard to find things. I got my Dicliptera suberecta from him, a charming, grey, felty sub-shrub with orange flowers that you don't see for sale very often. He does quite a few tender plants, in season, and a good range of Sanguisorba, and a long list of perennial geraniums, and his prices are very reasonable. His website is clearly organised and easy to navigate around, and choosing plants is a breeze. It just gets a little less twenty-first century when it comes to paying and taking delivery of them. He does not use any of the proprietary systems like SagePay for online credit card payments and he does not take PayPal. Instead you have to pay by card over the phone or send a cheque, and the onus is on you to make contact to pay. I know this because after submitting my order I wanted to add an odd Lamium, so I emailed asking if this was possible and suggesting that if he let me know what was available I could post him a cheque. I heard nothing back for several days so rang up.
From my own time working in the plant centre I know it is not helpful if people ring and immediately launch into a long explanation of what they want, because half the time when you answer the phone you are nowhere near the computer or any paperwork and by the time you get back to your desk you have forgotten what they said their name was or when they placed the order and have to start again. I said I'd called about a recent order and waited for him to say something. He didn't so I asked Would you like my name and order number. That would be helpful said the man from north Lincolnshire. It turned out he thought he had most of the order and I was all set to pay by credit card, but when he said reassuringly that he wouldn't charge my card until the order was ready to be dispatched I began to think that it might not be an awfully good idea to have my card details sitting on a desk in an office in Lincolnshire where goodness knows who could see them, so I ended up sending a limit cheque and it eventually took over a month from placing the order to receiving the box this morning. I rang last week to find out when it was going to be and check that they would email when it was sent, having visions of it being left outside our dead neighbour's empty house like the computer mouse the SA ordered from Amazon that a delivery driver pushed though the neighbour's door, and which only turned up a week later after the neighbour's daughter came to check on the house and kindly brought it round. Yours is down for delivery next week, said the man from north Lincolnshire.
I got an email yesterday to say the delivery would be coming today. The plants arrived safely, wrapped in damp copies of the Grimsby Telegraph and copious amounts of clingfilm. They looked a little shocked by their two days in a box, as plants do, but they seemed healthy enough and will be fine. They include a form of Argyranthemum with very fine leaves, similar to one I saw in pots at Audley End and really wanted, only they didn't sell them in their shop, and a Convolvus sabatius, and a heliotrope promised to have the full old fashioned scent, and a couple of rarish primroses, and two sorts of Sanguisorba I couldn't have found locally. Some of the pots were slightly weedy, and while I had ordered three of a prostrate form of Veronica for the railway only one had been packed. A Symphytum and a Viola I wanted were out of stock, but I had not been charged for them. I wondered whether to contact the man in north Lincolnshire again and ask for a cheque for £4.50 for the two missing Veronica prostrata, and decided I couldn't face the hassle. Mistakes happen, and his prices really are very reasonable: his Geranium phaeum 'Album' were only £3.95 compared to £4.95 at Beth Chatto and his Salvia 'Love and Wishes' was nearly two pounds less than I'd have paid at Ashwood. I think I would use him again, and I would know to post a limit cheque for the full possible amount as soon as I placed the order. It is just a bit of a drag not knowing when the box is going to arrive since you can't stay in all the time for weeks, and would the carrier obey my instruction to leave it in the porch without a signature if we were out? And I would highlight in the Comments box on the order form where I had ordered more than one of something. He is at Cottage Nurseries at Thoresthorpe, north Lincolnshire, if you want to try for yourself.