The prices you pay for catalog plants are typically a lot higher than what you would pay for that plant at your local nursery, especially when you add in the shipping. I don't really mind paying more for the convenience of catalog shopping. After all, printing catalogs is an expense that must be paid for somehow. And I don’t mind that the plant you get will be tiny compared with the plant you could buy at your local nursery. These small plants usually grow very quickly.
But I do have one big complaint about these catalogs: what you see is not always what you get. The pictures in some of these catalogs can be deceptive. I’m not talking about the fact that the pictures are of robust plants that have been grown in prime conditions and pinched back to maximize blooms. I’m not even talking about when the picture is a close-up of very small flower so that you don’t get a sense of the true size of the flower. I’m talking about pictures that have the effect (if not the intent) of deception.
It bothers me when plants that commonly have only a few flowers on a stem are pictured as though they produce a large bouquet of flowers. Sometimes the foliage of the plant may not even be shown in the picture, just a bouquet of flowers against a garden background. Who buys a plant for the flower without considering what the foliage looks like?
And speaking of bouquets, when you look closely at some of the pictures in garden catalogs, it appears that the plants have been digitally constructed, with bouquets of flowers photo-shopped onto the plant's foliage. Regardless of how green our thumbs may be, I don't think we could ever grow plants so floriferous. Staging plants in this way is bound to result in a disappointed purchaser.
The most egregious example of this staging came in a catalog this week. Leafing through the catalog, my eye was caught by a striking picture. On first glance, it appeared to be a large, pink and purple flower growing on a light green stalk. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a few leaves of coral bell (Huechera ‘Midnight Rose’) pictured on top of what appeared to be variegated Solomon’s Seal. The description accompanying the picture talked about “these blooms,” but the blooms on the plant were not even shown in the picture, only the brightly colored foliage! The dark leaves of the coral bell and light green of the Solomon’s seal make a great combination, but why not show them in a realistic setting so that a shopper could (1) know what he/she is getting when the coral bell is purchased and (2) get some ideas about companion plants?
So my advice to anyone purchasing an unfamiliar plant from a garden catalog is to check out the plant from some other site to confirm what the plant actually looks like. Preferably, use a non-retail plant site. The Missouri Botanical Garden is one of my favorites but there are many others that provide realistic pictures of plants.
Happy New Year and happy shopping.