Buying Clematis From Mail-Order Nurseries

Mailbox with clematis flowers

If you are not a baby boomer you may not remember that before the advent of the Internet, winter was often the time that many gardeners would peruse mail-order catalogs.  It was always an exciting time for me as I could leisurely browse through these catalogs dreaming about which new plant acquisitions that would be joining my garden.  I especially liked the ones with tempting colored pictures. 

Today there are only a few companies that still mail out their catalogs, most having opted to become Internet-only mail order nurseries.  The good news is you can find many enticing pictures on the Internet (see Clematis Queen’s Photo Gallery) before you go to the nurseries’ website to buy.  I admit I miss the catalogs, but there are always advantages and disadvantages when it comes to progress.  Happily now, with the click of my mouse, I can see what each company carries, compare it with other clematis vendors and then decide if it is something I would like to try.  It can’t get easier than that! 

The Clematis Queen’s Guide to Mail-Ordering Clematis

Here are some suggestions that I have for when you purchase clematis. 

The Correct Zoning

When looking for guidance on a mail order nursery website’s for growing clematis and you happen to live in USDA Zones 10-11 (and now the new USDA Zone 12), do not expect to find accurate zoning information for the majority of clematis available.  To the best of my knowledge, Bluestone Perennials, Inc. and Brushwood Nursery are the only two nurseries with the correct zoning for USDA Zones 10 and 11.  For more information on why there is this discrepancy in zoning, please read an extremely insightful article by Tony Avent titled: Plant Hardiness Information - Interpreting Your Zone.  For me it will be a dream come true when other nurseries in America jump on board. 

Size of Plants

I am a huge advocate of buying the biggest clematis possible!  I always encourage gardeners to purchase the largest plant possible which is why you should always look at what the size is of the clematis plants that a company is offering.  This piece of advice is especially valuable to less experienced or new gardeners because the bigger the rootball the more likely its chances are of surviving.

When reading size descriptions I would suggest that you use caution if the seller uses vague references to size as opposed to concrete dimensions of their containers.  A good example would be a vendor claiming they under-pot their clematis in order to save space at their nursery.  They point out that this results in a savings to you in the cost of shipping because it is in a smaller container.  The fact is a healthy plant needs sufficient root space to grow properly and stifling the roots for the above reason is, in my opinion, a bad nursery practice.  Another sizing method that I find disconcerting is using words such as “medium” and “large” to indicate the size of clematis you will be purchasing.  Since I want to know in advance what size plant I am getting, I personally would not buy anything that did not state something more quantifiable.  After all, who wants an unpleasant surprise? 

It should be noted for those of you ordering the more specialized clematis that the size and maturity of a clematis can sometimes vary depending on the cultivar or type of species’ natural growth tendencies.  So, some varieties will not appear as robust in size as others grown in the same size container, especially if they are slower growers. 

For a more in-depth look at sizing of containers and rootballs see: How Old Are Mail-Order Clematis?.

Botanical Names

The reason it is nice to know the botanical name of your clematis is so you can keep it for your records. This allows you, if necessary, to look up any information about it you are unsure of.  Sadly, at this time there is no universal agreement on the definitive spelling of several clematis names, so you will find that these clematis will have two (or sometimes even three) synonyms. 

Price

I am a true believer that in life you get what you pay for.  I like a bargain as much as anyone else, but when it comes to clematis I do not mind paying a little more if I am assured that I will be getting a healthy, top-of-the-line plant.  Two things that can influence price are the size of the plant being sold and if it is a premium plant (i.e. one that is trademarked and the grower has to pay a royalty payment).  Obviously the price of a tiny bareroot plant should be less than that of a full quart clematis, so price can be indicative of the size of the plant you will receive as well. 

Handling and Shipping

I think many of us are surprised at how much it costs to ship a clematis.  The weight of the package is not the only factor involved when determining shipping costs.  Where the shipment originates from, whether it needs to be shipped via surface or air, is the company using custom made boxes, what type of insulation is being used, is it an oversized order, do you live in a state that requires an  Agricultural Inspection (which means added fees) are all elements that can make shipping costs really add up.  I am sure I probably missed some of the expenses that can be incurred, but I think this will give you an idea why it is not cheap.  So, I empathize with companies that are selling us the nice big plants because the consumer often contracts a dose of “sticker shock” by not realizing what goes into getting them their plants. 

I applaud those companies that do not compel you to buy more than one clematis at a time, i.e. minimum orders, because we all have to start out somewhere and having to purchase a large number of plants can be intimidating, especially if you are new to growing clematis. Not having a minimum order is also helpful if the company you are dealing with has only one of the varieties of plants on your wish list.  Kudos as well to those vendors who reward the consumer with a discount on multiple purchases. 

Guarantees

No one likes to hear this, but since clematis are a perishable commodity, there is the possibility of them dying.  I know that there are nurseries out there that ship weak plants and occasionally even the best ones send you a plant that prematurely goes to heaven.  But I happen to be on the side of the nurseries when it comes to this happening because the majority of vendors that I have dealt with take great pride in their product and are very conscientious about sending out viable plants.  My advice to any new clematis gardener that is considering buying from a company for the first time is to carefully read their return policy before ordering.  Chances are if they make you jump through too many hoops they will be also be very reluctant to help you if something does go wrong.  

So, there you have it, some pointers from the Queen.  I hope they help!

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