Do Internet suppliers really deliver?


Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


For the urban gardener, most plants are easily obtainable at nearby nurseries.

But for gardeners who would rather shop from the convenience of their desks or search for a rare plant, the popularity of ordering plants via the Internet is growing.

PC Data Online, a research firm, reports that more than $57 million in house and garden sales were made from Internet sites at the peak of Christmas sales (the week of Dec. 12) and almost $19 million were made between Dec. 27 and Jan 2.

Consumers benefit from shopping garden Web sites because they come in contact with a community of gardeners through site-sponsored chats and bulletin boards, as well as free newsletters.

"There's always a new site, so every time you turn on your computer it's a new adventure," says Randall Schultz, spokesperson for the Mailorder Gardening Association.

While beautiful mail-order catalog wish books are nothing new for gardeners, online ordering has many advantages, Internet e-tailers say. Ordering online with a credit card is immediate, cutting through days of mail delivery and waiting for checks to clear. It's possible for online companies to keep current with their stock, eliminating listings for sold-out plants and introducing new plants much faster. Companies can keep in touch with their regular customers easily through e-mail.

But ordering plants online is nothing like ordering books, clothing or even Christmas trees.

"A plant is a perishable item," Mr. Schultz says. "A plant has a window when it can be grown."

As fall garden season approaches, House & Garden wanted to get a sense of the the e-plant experience. We ordered penstemon and sedum plants from various Web sites to compare the process, the cost and condition of the plants when they arrived. See the chart below for a detailed comparison.

To choose sites to buy from, we skipped traditional paper catalogs and chose members of the Mailorder Gardening Association and vendors listed on a Web site called www.gardenlist.com.

Gardenlist is the brainchild of Cyndi Johnson, who maintains the site as a hobby. She lists vendors of perennials sorted by the experiences shoppers report. Her testers are people who use the Web site and people who write to the online mailing list called "gardens." We selected the following nurseries for comparison shopping:

Garden.com, a superstore developed for the Internet www.garden.com.

Bluestone Perennials, a family-owned grower in Madison, Ohio, www.bluestoneperennials.com.

Shady Oaks Nursery of Minnesota, specializing in plants for shady places www.shadyoaks.com.

Calloway's Nursery based in Fort Worth, which has teamed with Etera, a plant producer in Mount Vernon, Wash. www.calloways.com. Calloway's gets a percentage of sales to shoppers who click on www.calloways.com and buy from the bigger Etera inventory on the Web.

Because there's also the thrill of the chase for people who love rare plants, we followed the lead of The Dallas Arboretum and ordered Globba globulifera 'Purple Globe', a rare ginger from Stokes Tropicals www.stokestropicals.com in New Iberia, La.

Be advised, however, that delivery on a rare plant may be especially slow. Stokes allows four to six weeks delivery time, according to its customer service representative.

To get the plant more quickly, we switched from a bare-root specimen to a rhizome, which was in stock. It arrived with a couple of shoots growing from it, complete with a valiantly growing green leaf.

A note of warning about ordering tropicals: Leslie Finical, the arboretum's curator of plants, says to check USDA zone ratings carefully.

"As long as it's Zone 8 or below, you should be fine," she says.

How they fared

Some sites are easier to navigate than others, and some vendors provide extras, like Garden.com's landscape design program and chats, forums and bulletin boards, where gardeners can communicate with each other.

Pinetree Garden Seeds, which offers 51 perennials by Internet www.superseeds.com.

The vendors we chose gave a guarantee. All but Pinetree Garden Seeds had a written policy on the Web sites; some were subject to time limits. A Pinetree representative said the company had a replacement or money-back guarantee, but could not specify a time limit. Calloway's also allows Internet customers to return plants to its neighborhood stores.


Shopping around

Calloway's offered the most complete plant information. The site shows how plants look on arrival, flanked by a ruler to give a sense of scale. Then there is a photo of how the plant should look in eight weeks.

Pinetree Garden Seeds has a brief listing on each plant that runs about five lines. The listing does not include a recommended distance between plants and didn't give as much detail as some of the other sites with longer descriptions.


Checking out

Making the order was easy, for the most part. Garden.com is probably the fastest to the cash register. From its home page, you could type the plant name and press "Search" to skip right to a list of matching plants, then put them in your "wheelbarrow."

When using Garden.com, you can opt for a live chat with a customer solutions representative before, while or after placing the order. If your question is horticultural, you can ask the "plant doctor."

There were some confusing messages about online security as we navigated the ordering process on the Pinetree Garden Seeds site, but at the end of the order it appeared that our transaction had been secure after all.


Shipping

Bluestone Perennials allows you to select the day your shipment leaves them - within reason, of course. During late spring, the company offered next-day shipping. During other times of the year, they may delay shipping to avoid the problem of plants sitting in hot trucks during a weekend.

We found Pinetree's shipping options very flexible.

Calloway's gathers the perennials in your order during the first days of each week, then ships them by Federal Express standard delivery one to three immediately. You may get the order early in the week, or you may get it at the very end.

We ordered Garden.com's plants too late in the week to make the next week's shipment, so we had to wait until the following week. The plants arrived on Thursday, about two weeks after they were ordered. A spokeswoman for Garden.com said the delay had to do with the Memorial Day weekend and the fact that their perennial supplier had "maxed out" with orders.


The arrival

Most of the plants arrived early or as predicted. They were not overly packaged, but they were not damaged by the journey - for the most part.

Bluestone Perennials sells plants in a minipack of three. The sedums looked very healthy, but only one penstemon survived the trip. Owner Bill Boonstra says the Bluestone guarantee applies in this case.

Pinetree Garden Seeds shipped using U.S. mail, and the plants survived fine, despite arriving on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

The Calloway's Etera plants were remarkably mature. The sedums had stems the size of a jumbo kindergarten pencil. Etera plants are a year old and have undergone a patented growing process, says Mary Beth Anderson, advertising and communications manager for Etera. Etera forces you to enjoy more of a good thing - they have a four-plant minimum order. None of the other vendors we used had a minimum, or else we exceeded it unknowingly.

Shady Oaks sent a bare-root plant. Mr. Osland says the bare-root is really the better plant - and admittedly, the show was spectacular as shoots began to emerge energetically from the cut-off stems. But the packing process varies specifically by plant and by season so much that customers may not know whether they are getting a bare-root or a potted plant, he says.


The fine print

Before you get excited about ordering, read the fine print. Some vendors have already decided it's the wrong time to ship to you.

For example, High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, N.M., cautions that noncoastal Zone 8 locations including the Dallas area are too hot for shipping plants right now. The company recommends waiting for cooler daytime temperatures in late summer or fall.

Bluestone Perennials has stopped shipping all perennials until mid-August.

Calloway's offerings are through for the year; the next shipments begin in February.

Pinetree Garden Seeds is also taking a break from shipping perennials, and it will resume shipping in September.

Garden.com isn't shipping perennials now, but plans to ship to Dallas customers Sept. 4 through Oct. 18. The company's 'Husker Red' penstemons will not resume shipping until late March 2001.

Shady Oaks continues shipping hostas and other perennials throughout the summer.


SOURCES

Here are Web sites and phone numbers for the sources mentioned in the story:

Bluestone Perennials: www.bluestoneperennials.com or 1-800-852-5243.

Calloway's: www.calloways.com.

Garden.com: www.garden.com or 1-800-466-8142.

Pinetree Garden Seeds: www.superseeds.com or 207-926-3400.

Shady Oaks Nursery: www.shadyoaks.com or 1-800-504-8006.