MAIL ORDER SPECIAL Our round-up reveals sources for unusual plants and uncommon service

by MEGHAN LYNCH

photography by WEBB CHAPPELL

WHETHER IT’S ONLINE OR ON PAPER, a mail-order nursery catalog improves a winter afternoon. Spring doesn’t seem so far off when you browse the pages. Anything seems possible, as plant names, descriptions, and pictures stir your imagination.

Some of the best catalogs to read, really read, come from small companies, those that started when someone’s love of plants outgrew the garden. Specialty nurseries, no matter how distant, give you the chance to try something entirely new to you, or build a collection around an old favorite. They also do gardeners a great service by keeping uncommon plants in cultivation. The stock maybe in limited supply, the staff may be tiny, but the expertise, the enthusiasm, and the desire to help other gardeners are never ending. Here are ten to check out before the shipping season starts.

LAZY S’S FARM NURSERY

WHERE: Barboursville, Virginia

RUN BY: Owners Debbie and Pete Sheuchenko, and a staff of four

FIRST SEASON: 1969

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Lazy S’s offers a mix of everything—perennials, tender perennials, shrubs, trees, and vines. The huge inventory includes must-have garden classics alongside unusual species and cultivars to try. And it’s all propagated and grown on-site “the old-fashioned way.”

THE CATALOG: Reading it is like entering a conversation with fellow plant lovers. The Sheuchenkos, enthusiastic and careful writers, pepper their detailed descriptions with informative quotes from gardening experts and authors, such as Michael Dirr, Paul Cappiello, Barry Yinger, and Tony Avent. Online only.

ANIMAL APPEAL: The Web site’s photos of Maya and her pup Katie illustrate the enviable life of a nursery dog.

LEARN MORE: Lazy S’s Farm Nursery, 2360 Spotswood Trail, Barboursville VA 22923; webmaster@lazyssfarm.com or availability@lazyssfarm.com; www.lazyssfarm.com

MESA GARDEN

WHERE: Belen, New Mexico

RUN BY: Linda and Steven Brack, one full-time employee, and a handful of seasonal helpers

FIRST SEASON: 1977

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Mesa Garden seems to have just about every cactus and succulent under the sun, available as small plants or packets of seeds. The Bracks built up their stock from seeds Steven collected when they were first starting out; most of what they sell now they propagate themselves. They do not sell wild-collected plants. The Bracks work hard to cultivate knowledge, too, by hiring students interested in learning about plants. They encourage young gardeners everywhere to seek nurseries where they might learn the value of and the techniques for keeping unusual plants in cultivation.

THE CATALOG: No photos, and the descriptions assume some familiarity with the plant in question, often mentioning only the most distinguishing features of a species or cultivar. The enormity of the stock list probably explains the perfunctory prose. The Bracks’ germination and cultivation tips are more detailed, and quite helpful. Online only.

QUOTABLE: “You can imagine the horror of our parents when I told them I was going to start a cactus and succulent nursery, but it did come to pass.”—Steven Brack

LEARN MORE: Mesa Garden, P. O. Box 72, Belen NM 87002; cactus@swcp.com; www.mesagarden.com

LYNDON LYON GREENHOUSES

WHERE: Dolgeville, New York

RUN BY: Owner Paul Serrano and a staff of three

FIRST SEASON: 1954

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses has been hybridizing and selling African violets for over 50 years. It all started when Lyndon Lyon, the current owner’s grandfather, received a single plant as a gift. His collection eventually overtook the second floor of his house. Establishing the nursery was something of a necessity.

THE CATALOG: You’ll be hard-pressed to read the delightful names and descriptions of the hundreds of violet cultivars without feeling compelled to adopt one—or a few— of these classic little windowsill charmers. They offer plenty of other gesneriads, unusual houseplants, rex begonias, and plants for terrariums, too, for gardeners looking to expand their interest to the indoors. Online and in print (free).

NOTABLE: Lyndon Lyon hybridized the first double-pink African violets in the world, one of which sold for $1,000 dollars at the African Violet Society Show in 1954.

LEARN MORE: Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, P. O. Box 749, Dolgeville NY 13329; info@lyndonlyon.com; 315-429-8291; www.lyndonlyon.com

GOODWIN CREEK GARDENS

WHERE: Williams, Oregon

RUN BY: Dotti and Jim Becker, one employee, and any grandkids who feel like helping out

FIRST SEASON: 1977

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: When the Beckers first started Goodwin Creek, they grew flowers and herbs for the dried flower trade. Within a few years they switched to selling plants and seeds to gardeners. A great source for scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) and heirloom and contemporary herb cultivars, the Beckers take much pride in their growing methods. Plants are propagated and grown on-site. They use only organic soil ingredients, fertilizers, and pest controls.

THE CATALOG: A good read. It provides concise descriptions of every plant and longer discussions of lavenders, pelargoniums, and butterfly- and bird-gardens. Scattered through the pages are quotes from literature, sketches of plants and wildlife, horticultural definitions, and lists. Online and in print (free).

THEY WROTE THE BOOK: Together the Beckers authored An Everlasting Garden (Interweave Press, 1994); Jim co-wrote, with Faye Brawner, Scented Geraniums (Interweave, 1996).

LEARN MORE: Goodwin Creek Gardens, P. O. Box 83, Williams OR 97544; info@goodwincreekgardens.com; 800-846-7359; www.goodwincreekgardens.com

TERRAPIN GARDENS

WHERE: Woodinville, Washington

RUN BY: Handan Selamoglu and Mike Braunlich

FIRST SEASON: 2001

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Terrapin Gardens might be called a general-interest nursery—it offers annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs. But the species and cultivars within these categories are an eclectic mix, reflecting Selamoglu and Braunlich’s personal interests. As they explain in their catalog, “The only plants we sell are plants we like or plants we think we might like.”

THE CATALOG: Easy to navigate, concise but informative, and updated regularly. Because of its small size, Terrapin’s stock is often in limited supply, so be prepared to see some “Sold Out” tags next to the plant descriptions. Regardless of availability, it’s fun to see what Selamoglu and Braunlich are into and up to each season. Online only.

ANIMAL APPEAL: Besides plants, they raise wood turtles, hence the nursery name.

LEARN MORE: Terrapin Gardens, 13825 162 Avenue NE, Woodinville WA 98072; info@terrapin-gardens.com; www.terrapin-gardens.com

HICKORY MOUNTAIN PLANT FARM

WHERE: Pittsboro, North Carolina

RUN BY: Greta and Duck James, grandson Trevor, and family, friends, and area students temping seasonally

FIRST SEASON: 1988

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: They grow and sell over 200 types of hostas and 27 hardy ferns. It all started years ago when Duck, working as a landscape contractor, installed a hosta at a large job site. He passed it everyday as he continued working and, in his words, “fell in love completely” He and his wife, Greta, developed their business by visiting other nurseries and observing what worked and what didn’t. They started with 50 plants in pots, but now propagate, grow, and ship plants all over, and keep a nice Web site, maintained by Greta, who also teaches school full-time.

THE CATALOG: The plants are well described, and the supplementary advice, glossary, Web links, and garden ideas prove the couple’s commitment to customer service. Online only.

QUOTABLE: “It’s cool to think of one of our plants growing in Idaho or someplace. Hopefully it’ll be there forever, and the people will divide it and pass it down through their family and friends.”—Duck James

LEARN MORE: Hickory Mountain Plant Farm, 148 Hadley Mill Road, Pittsboro NC 27312; info@hostafarm.com; 919-542-0360; www.hostafarm.com

SUNSCAPES

WHERE: Pueblo, Colorado

RUN BY: Bill Adams and a few spring helpers

FIRST SEASON: 1995

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Sunscapes caters to gardeners challenged by the intermountain/high desert climate of the American West. Check them out if you live there, or if you just want something unusual for your rock, trough, or wall garden. The stock includes both time-tested alpines and succulents, as well as new introductions of promising South African and local native plants.

THE CATALOG: It lacks common names, and only a few plants are pictured, which makes it a bit intimidating for novice gardeners. But the descriptions relate their author’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and unique way of seeing the plants he loves. Online only.

QUOTABLE: A description of Draba rigida ssp. bryoides: “One of the tightest buns in the genus.” Of Scrophularia desertorum: “The flowers look like Slimer from Ghostbusters!

LEARN MORE: Sunscapes, 330 Carlile Avenue, Pueblo CO 81004; sunscapes@com cast.net; 719-546-0047; www.sunscapes.net

SHOOTING STAR NURSERY

WHERE: Georgetown, Kentucky

RUN BY: Owner Marianne Hunt and a staff of four or five

FIRST SEASON: 1988; Hunt took over in 2000

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: The trees, shrubs, and wildflowers at Shooting Star Nursery are all native to the eastern United States. But none of them have been collected from the wild. Instead, all plants are propagated at the nursery, vegetatively or from seed or tissue culture, in an effort to protect wild habitats.

THE CATALOG: A wealth of information. Plants aren’t just described, but also tagged with icons indicating their cultivation requirements and any special properties they possess. Online and in print (free).

NOTABLE: The Web site includes a page that’s titled “Ethics”—a discussion of native plant supply-and-demand.

LEARN MORE: Shooting Star Nursery, 160 Soards Road, Georgetown KY 40324; shootingstarnursery@msn.com; (502) 867-7979; www.shootingstarnursery.com.

CALIFORNIA CARNIVORES

WHERE: Sebastopol, California

RUN BY: Peter D’Amato and Marilee Maertz, two part-timers, and a host of volunteers

FIRST SEASON: 1989

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: A favorite of carnivorous-plant lovers across the country, California Carnivores has a great array of pitcher plants, sundews, flytraps, and other excellent plants for bog gardens, windowsills, or terrariums. All are propagated, not harvested from natural habitats, and shipped well established in pots, not bare-root.

THE CATALOG: Gives a descriptive overview of each genus, and spells out the care needs of each, then shows photographs of available species and cultivars. Online only.

THEY WROTE THE BOOK: Co-owner Peter D’Amato is the author of The Savage Garden (Ten Speed Press, 1997).

LEARN MORE: California Carnivores, 2833 Old Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol CA 95472; califcarn@aol.com; 707-824-0433; www.californiacarnivores.com

MUNCHKIN NURSERY AND GARDENS

WHERE: Depauw, Indiana

RUN BY: JoAn Riley and Gene Bush. That’s it.

FIRST SEASON: 1934

WHY IT’S SPECIAL: Riley and Bush sell native perennials and woodland wildflowers, which they propagate and grow on-site. Munchkin Nursery began as a personal garden, and the married couple’s own gardening successes and future goals remain the driving force. They believe in having some personal experience with anything they sell, and they try to test plants in their gardens before offering them for sale.

THE CATALOG: Plant descriptions are a nice mix of basic facts and ideas and advice from personal experience. Online and in print ($3).

THEY WROTE THE BOOK: Well, Bush hasn’t written a book per se, but he has contributed to newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. He even had his own newsletter for a while. Its archives can be read at the nursery’s Web site.

LEARN MORE: Munchkin Nursery and Gardens; 323 Woodside Drive N W, Depauw IN 47115; genebush@munchkinnursery.com; 812-633-4858; www.munchkinnursery.com H

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