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Get down and dirty
By ANNE RAVER, N.Y. Times News Service
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2000
I don't like to order plants on the Web. If it's something simple I'm after, like more purple coneflowers or a couple of Miss Kim lilacs, I'll head for a favorite nursery and wander down the aisles of trees, shrubs and perennials.
I flirt with all kinds of plants I don't need, touching the leaves, sizing up their height, branching, color and general health. I open their jaws and look at their teeth. I spend a lot of money on things I didn't come for, but that's part of the joy of gardening.
It's easy to spend money on the Internet, but you don't experience any sensual pleasures. In fact, too often, it feels like work.
There I am on a gorgeous day, hunched over my desk, clicking my mouse, straining my eyes at a rather blurry picture of Hydrangea paniculata Tardiva, which I want, desperately. I add the $19 bareroot hydrangea to my "wheelbarrow" and continue down the list.
The oakleaf hydrangea, for $13.50, looks pretty good, but it's out of stock. I continue, wearily. If I'm going to get repetitive stress injury, I'd rather get it from pruning the privet than from clicking a mouse.
I'd much rather be thumbing through a favorite catalog, drinking coffee on the porch, than clicking little icons into my shopping cart. Granted, it is faster to order a long list of roses, bulbs or seeds on the Web -- you don't even have to add up your subtotal -- but many of my favorite mail-order companies have yet to get their Web sites up and running.
For instance, when I used a search engine to find Cricket Hill Garden, which grows exquisite tree peonies, I was linked in less than a minute to the garden's home page, www.treepeony.com, but, when I tried to "enter the garden," the Netscape meteors just kept flying over the planet in the icon box -- always a bad sign -- until the notice appeared: "The server could be down or is not responding."
Most gardeners feel the way I do. According to the National Gardening Association, 67-million households spent $30-billion on lawn and garden products last year. Only 2 percent, or $160-million, was spent online.
"More than 90 percent go to retail outlets," said Bruce Butterfield, the director of research at the association. Direct marketing -- selling goods through not just the Internet but also through catalogs and magazines -- accounts for only 7 percent of the $30-billion.
Why? Because buying a plant is like buying a peach.
"You want to pick it up, squeeze it, see what she is," Butterfield said.
No matter how you order a plant, by catalog or online, shipping it live is tricky. Even the most reputable nursery, such as Heirloom Roses in St. Paul, Ore., cannot rule out a flood, a drought, a sudden freeze or a gardener called out of town when 13 roses need to be unpacked and planted in 2-foot-holes full of compost with perfect drainage.
Which is why I go to a good local nursery for all but the rare plants I have to order elsewhere. For something really hard to find, I choose a reputable grower or seed company and order online or by telephone or mail.
Granted, as soon as the good nurseries get their Web sites running smoothly, ordering online will be a nifty addition to the joy of poring over the catalogs from those same companies. You can just run inside for 10 minutes and click your mouse a few hundred times and be done with it. You can see what's out of stock and what has been added almost daily, so that will be good, if you garden like a day trader.
Online browsing, not shopping, has put the heat on retail outlets.
"One of the unintended consequences has been that customers will go to Garden.com, print out a list of 27 varieties of hostas, take it to the garden center and say, "I want this blue one,' " Butterfield said.
In the old days, they did the same thing with the Sears & Roebuck catalog. "It challenges retail to have more variety," he said. "It broadens people's horizons, but it's got to be hell for the retailers. People say, "I saw this 12-pocket strawberry jar with a rolled rim sold by Kinsman & Co. How come you don't have it?' "
That strawberry jar is an example of the riches on the Web. The Web's potential as a research tool is infinite. Wondering how to compost? Go to a search engine and type in "compost" or "compost" and "soil."
On their Web sites, the New York Botanical Garden (www.nybg.org) and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (www.bbg.org) explain all you need to know to get started. The more scientific minded can find a virtual college course on all the life teeming beneath their feet in www.soilfoodweb.com.
I got instructions and a plan for building a bluebird box by typing "bluebird society" in a Google search box, which gave me the North American Bluebird Society's Web site, www.nabluebirdsociety.org.
I've hooked up with organic farmers and wildlife biologists in Maryland by surfing the Web, starting with general agencies, such as the State Department of Agriculture and the State Department of Natural Resources and soon finding links to community service agriculture, federal subsidies for turning cropland into wildlife habitats and organic farms run by the state chapter of the National Audubon Society.
I logged onto the New York Botanical Garden Web site, www.nybg.org, and found out that Rose Week began June 3 and that the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden was in peak bloom, but, when I clicked on "rose garden" to peruse its list of what's growing there, I got an error message, which said, "Sorry. The file you requested does not exist."
My temples started throbbing, then it occurred to me that I didn't need a list. I could go see real roses blooming.
You could spend all day indoors, reading articles by your favorite gardeners and keeping up with their up-to-the-minute thoughts.
On her Web site, www.reneesgarden.com, Renee Shepherd explains the difference between F-1 hybrids and open-pollinated seed. She tells you how to plant tomatoes and peppers.
On his Web site, www.cooksgarden.com, Shepherd Ogden, the owner of the Cooks Garden, in Londonderry, Vt., offers his views on genetic engineering. He keeps a garden journal on the progress of his trial beds in Burlington.
Oops, the last entry was April 21. Maybe Ogden is busy gardening these days.
That reminds me: Thirteen bareroot roses are still sitting in my vegetable garden, waiting for me to dig those big holes full of good compost, which I learned all about on the Web, so the virtual gardener had better get real.
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