Read Your Garden Catalogs—Correctly

A collection of garden catalogs.


By Kit Flynn

The other day I brought along a garden catalog to while away the time spent waiting in a doctor’s office. I suddenly came to the realization that rarely do I take the time to read a garden catalog correctly—and I have spent years poring over these same catalogs.

A good catalog contains mountains of information along with attractive photos. The photos should ensnare us into reading the captions. However, chances are that you (like me) have fallen into the beautiful-photo-instant-gratification trap. You see a photo of an amazing plant, think “I must add that to the garden” and order it without looking at its specifications. When it finally arrives, you end up thinking, “What on earth did I order?” Such is the lackadaisical way in which we select our plants.

A good catalog will tell you what gardening zone this particular plant requires. The world is split into gardening zones and ours here in Chapel Hill belongs to 7a. Plant Delights, located just south of Raleigh is located in gardening zone 7b. Now there isn’t a tremendous difference between these two designations—but there is enough of a variance to dictate whether a particular plant will do well in our zone.

If you want to buy a plant designated for 7b, by all means do so, but plant it in the spring, not the fall as you want to give the roots time to grow and expand before the winter temperatures settle in. This might be a plant that dies back in the winter in colder temperatures so you need to ensure the root system is healthy and functioning.

Be sure to take a good look at the zone requirements for all varieties of a species. For example, if you are looking at crinums in the Plant Delights catalog, you’ll notice many are suitable for zone 7a—and then you’ll run across C. jagus ‘Maya Moon’ that is only suitable for zones 8-11. This probably is not the best choice for your 7a garden. Inevitably, you will have mooned over ‘Maya Moon’ before (hopefully) realizing that it isn’t fully compatible with our gardening zone. Therefore, reading the gardening zone requirement is very important.

A good catalog always tells you what type of sun exposure is required. “Light shade to shade” probably indicates that the plant doesn’t want a fully sunny exposure. “Sun to part sun” certainly heavily suggests that the plant won’t thrive in a shady environment. Different plants require different amounts of sunlight—it really is that simple.

I am a notoriously untalented staker of plants. Therefore, the size dimensions given for a particular plant are important to me in my effort to avoid the dreaded staking. Baptisia is a notorious flopping plant for me so the last thing I need is a variety that soars to 60 inches in height. Even 48 inches is too tall for me so I search out those that fall below 36 inches in height. Otherwise, the fearful act of staking raises its lethal head.

Width measurements are also important. Because baptisia is a plant that is slow to take off, I have learned the hard way to surround the youthful baptisia with annuals or daylilies that can easily be moved later on. Once the baptisia has decided to widen its reach, it brooks no interference. The important thing is to plan ahead — and this information is available in a good catalog.

An informative catalog may also mention whether a plant is a spreader or a clumper. This is vital information for me as my garden can no longer accommodate nomadic plants. It also helps me to escape the clutches of a wandering monarda, a genus in the mint family. A clumping monarda pleases me whereas a meandering one eventually will get pulled out.

The catalog will also tell you when to expect the plant to produce flowers. This is significant as a later blooming bletilla has a better chance of producing viable flowers than an early blooming one. You need to decide when you want the flowers; if you go away for the summer you might opt for flowers in the spring and fall.

You will also notice that some plants offered in the spring are unavailable in the fall catalog. Plants such as cannas and dahlias should only be planted here in zone 7a in the spring. While cannas can remain in the ground year-round, they need a strong root system to protect their rhizomes, those underground stems that travel close to the surface of the soil. Likewise, dahlias need to be planted in the warm soil of May, not the cooling soil of late September.

Some catalogs also contain intriguing bits of information. I bought a Danae racemosa a year ago, knowing that this was a sluggish plant. How sluggish? It takes a nursery 5-7 years to produce a plant large enough to sell. The Plant Delights catalog tells us that Danae was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. “Who was King Acrisius of Argos?” you might ask. A quick google search will tell you he was the grandfather of Perseus. All this knowledge began from one garden catalog comment.

A good nursery that produces most of its plants wants you, the gardener, to succeed. Therefore, their catalogs contain pertinent information that you need to read closely. Other sources that acquire their plants from different growers are sometimes far more concerned with their sales than they are with your success. A good nursery will replace their plants, should that necessity arise, within a specified period of time.

Treasure these catalogs for the advice they give. I still have my Niche Gardens 2019 catalog for the wonderful information it contains. Therefore, my gardening recommendation is this: The next time you are facing a waiting period in a doctor’s office, bring along a garden catalog—and really read it.

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