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Buying Seeds and Plants Online

People have bought seeds and plants by mail order since Victorian times. I love this photo from the 1940s of the packing shed at one of our suppliers, RV Roger, in Yorkshire. They had a section of the platform at Pickering Station reserved for their stock, and sent plants all around the country by train. They still use barley straw, but not handmade wooden boxes!

RV Roger packing shed
Photo: RV Roger Ltd.

Nurseries' catalogues were elaborate and informative, and as transport links improved and in the absence of competition from imports, growing nurseries thrived. Scott's Nurseries, down the road from us at Merriott, were a renowned fruit tree grower, and their catalogue was as much a guide to growing fruit trees as it was a price list!

Photo: Abe Books 

This was a business which should be perfect for the internet. Selling online has certainly reduced costs and massively increased choice for the consumer; there are, however, potential pitfalls to avoid.

Know Where Your Plants Are From

The biggest issue is knowing where the plants and seed you see advertised are actually from. Even after Brexit, most sold here are imported. Growers in countries like Holland and Italy operate on a large scale and have natural advantages in the availability of water/land/funding, or in climate or cheap labour. They're very efficient and mostly grow great plants, although there's obviously an environmental cost to growing them abroad and importing them. Plant imports can also bring pests and disease, and there are other good ecological reasons for sourcing native plants as locally as possible. 

There aren't actually many growers or seed harvesters left in the UK. Scott's, for example, closed in 2009. Mercifully, there are new outfits setting up, like Tom Adams for example - another of our suppliers, in Shropshire - but still far too few. As for domestic commercial sources of seed...

So why can you find so many people selling seeds and plants online? Many sellers are just that - like us, they're not actually growing anything. They buy from wholesale growers and sell them on. Some - also like us -  "drop ship" - i.e. supply plants directly from the growers. This is a key part of what we do, helping promote a growing community of small growers. Some retailers, however, strongly imply they're growing stuff themselves, while actually they just buy in from all over the place.

DEFRA don't exactly help the consumer with this. If you import a tree from, say, Italy, and leave it sitting in your nursery here for a few weeks, you can describe it as British grown. This won't tell you anything about a plant's provenance either. If it's a species native to the UK you might want it to be grown from seed from wild populations here (we think you should!). At least you should know where it's from to be able to make an informed choice. This is particularly true for wildflower seed, for which sellers don't need to disclose its origin at all! Knowing where your plants are from means you know how as well as where they were grown. I don't like buying plants grown in peat, for example.

Things get even more complicated as many plant growers also buy in stock, so you can't just assume that they grow everything they sell. Rogers are a good case in point - they grow lots of their own plants, but also buy in some ornamentals from good quality growers on the continent (they also have an outstanding biosecurity regime, before you ask!). Whether you're buying plants from a garden centre or online retailer, it it's not clear where they're from always ask. 

There is generally paperwork available which will tell you where a plant or seed is from, but it can be an exhausting process trying to track it down. Some of our suppliers send us order confirms even specifying which field in their nursery stock was grown in, for example, but others don't. There's a plant passporting system run by DEFRA which tells you who the nursery is you bought the plant from, which is some help, and which is designed to make sure it's traceable. We're members; it's a simple but helpful scheme.

There are some terrible bandits selling seeds online. To do this you should have a seed marketing licence from DEFRA, which frankly means nothing. Many sellers don't even have this.

Know Who You're Dealing With

In practical terms, you have to trust the person you're dealing with. Not just in terms of the quality of product, but also for initial advice and a follow up service. You need to be sure you're buying the right plant or seed mix and if anything goes wrong that you can get help, or in the worst case that it will be replaced.

  1. I won't buy from any website which doesn't have a relatively detailed about us section and clear contact details. It's partly because of this I won't buy from people selling through platforms like Amazon. 
  2. Check out a website's content. You often see people selling "wildflower seed", for example, illustrated with photos of ornamental cultivars. Always buy from someone who seems to know what they're talking about... i.e.
  3. ...use specialists. The RHS plant finder is a good source of information.  
  4. Obviously, look at genuine online reviews. 
  5. Use sellers you've met or read/heard about - either at shows, in the Press/blogosphere, videos, via informed personal recommendation, or who might have a bricks and mortar retail outlet themselves. It's how we find our suppliers!
  6. I won't buy from anyone who isn't up front about where their plants or seeds come from. Personally, I always try to buy genuinely British origin and grown if I can.
  7. There are some plant quality assurance schemes worth checking out - Plant Healthy, for example, or the HTA's Ornamental Horticulture Assurance Scheme. These are complicated and expensive schemes to join though, so there are many good non-accredited nurseries. Amazingly, there's no equivalent for seeds. Grrr...

Know What To Expect

Our customers can get jumpy about speedy delivery. Unfortunately, given seasonality, staff numbers and weather there's sometimes a delay in plant dispatch. Smaller nurseries in particular can find periods of peak demand over the bare root season tricky, and will queue their dispatches chronologically unless you have a particular deadline. It's true, some nurseries are poor at monitoring stock and/or communicating with customers (no names mentioned!), but the speed of delivery isn't necessarily related to the quality of the plant.

Availability is sometimes seasonal too - bare root plants, for example, have to be lifted and shipped when dormant. Oxygenating pond plants can have very short delivery windows, and some seed - notably Yellow Rattle - has both short viability and a limited seeding window, so can only be reliably bought from August to December

If you're dealing with a reputable supplier, you generally get what you pay for. Short of posting photos of each individual plant for sale (which larger plant specialists will do) it's difficult to accurately convey a plant's size if you can't physically see it. Even for something carefully graded like hedge whips, you might find a 60-90cm one year old Hawthorn and a much bigger 3 year old plant of the same height.

Plants like fruit trees are obviously going to be a lot more expensive than these whips because of their rarity and the time involved in their production, although maiden plants are only a year old. Some species (Yew or holly, for example) grow very slowly, so they're very expensive.

There can be problems with packaging and delivery, particularly relating to plants in pots or trays. If deliveries turn up damaged, the supplier should offer you replacements on production of a photo.

Don't look for a hard and fast guarantee for plants and seeds. Some sellers explictly offer it, but as a general rule nurseries should replace failed plants within a reasonable timeline unless there's an obvious problem with the way they've been planted and cared for. They usually require photos. Seeds are trickier, as they are more vulnerable to mistakes and problems less easy to spot.