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Mail-order critique Ratings: Three unscientific but enthusiastic gardeners assess the performance of nine companies; IN THE GARDEN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Confession may be good for the soul, but it's never fun, especially in print. I began this year resolved to do a little market research on nine seed and plant catalogs -- not a definitive scientific study, but useful nonetheless. Two experienced gardening friends -- Jeanette Parish and Pat Starkey, who writes a food-and- garden column for the Kent County News -- agreed to help.

Early last spring, we ordered a mix of plants and seeds, including some duplicates, from Burpee, the Cook's Garden, Gurney's Seed and Nursery, J.W. Jung Seed and Nursery, Nichols Garden Nursery, Piedmont Plant Co., Select Seeds, Shepherd's Garden Seeds, and Van Bourgondien. We had high hopes and good intentions.

Now, the confession: This has been my worst gardening year -- bar none -- in 24. (Pat and Jeanette are close behind.) Some of it was my fault, some of it wasn't. The drought was not; my over-full life, discouragement and subsequent garden neglect was. But I took notes.

Getting started

First, the seed orders: Burpee is very good. The seed order arrived swiftly, the seeds germinated before the same kind of seed from other companies (planted on the same day under the same conditions), and the plants those seeds produced were large and lush. For example, Burpee's Cobaea (a k a cathedral bells), a gorgeous annual vine with demitasse-size purple flowers, came up a full week before the Cook's Garden seeds and grew better throughout the season.

We ordered a few plants from Gurney, and tried their white Blankoma beet, which Pat especially liked.

"They look like turnips," she says. "Inside, they're white with a greenish ring, and when they're cooked, they turn an orangey-cream color and are very sweet. It taught my non-beet-eating family to like beets."

Because we enjoy odd varieties, I tried the Milano "white" zucchini from Cook's Garden. It produced wonderfully despite neglect, and was resistant to bugs and drought, though I never found any small, tender vegetables. They all started off fairly thick and grew bigger from there. But they made great zucchini latkes, casseroles, soups and breads, and were still going by the middle of October.

Jeanette started some of the herbs from Nichols and tomatoes from Shepherd's seeds inside in flats, then later direct-sowed basil in the garden.

"My Genovese basil from Nichols germinated well and did very well planted among the tomatoes," she says, "but the Nichols Red Rubin basil seemed a little more finicky and didn't ever do well, either germinating or growing."

We all agreed that the germination rate (number of healthy plants per seeds sown) of Shepherd's seeds was lower than the others, though the unusual varieties may make the lower germination rates and higher seed prices worth it. For example, in Jeanette's garden, the Mandarin Cross, a delicious slicing tomato that is as good raw as cooked, managed to thrive.

The Cranberry Island nicotiana from Select Seeds was a nice flower addition. The seed germinated well both inside the house and where Pat sowed them in her garden. "They're still beautiful," she says.

Better than Burpee

While Burpee's seeds and service were of the highest quality, they were beat in the plant category by Jung, Select Seeds and Piedmont Plant Co. For example, the Johnson's blue geranium was the same price from Burpee ($5) as from Jung, ($4.95), but the Burpee plant was considerably smaller than the Jung geranium and remained smaller throughout the growing season. All arrived at proper planting time, an important consideration.

Unfortunately, the plants from Gurney arrived five weeks early in a sleet storm. I watered them, then e-mailed Gurney. Their response was both apologetic and accommodating -- a refund offer. But I was curious to see how the plants did, so instead of taking the refund right away, I planted them when the sleet stopped and pampered them through June. Most failed. I notified Gurney June 23, and they immediately credited my account. In general, Jung and Select Seeds plants cost a little more than Gurney or Burpee.

From Select Seeds, I bought several scented geranium plants, including an unusual apricot. They were so tough they survived a week without water in pots when we went away and were still blooming outside my office in mid-October.

While I've been impressed with the quality of Van Bourgondien's bulbs, their fragrant hosta, for which I paid a hefty $15.95, hardly grew, though I babied it. It may perk up next year, and I'll continue to order bulbs, but I won't buy another plant from the company any time soon.

For hardy, field-grown vegetable plants, Piedmont Plant Co. is terrific. They have a limited selection of varieties, but what they ship (though they look dead on arrival) has been consistently high in quality. This year was no exception. I bought leek, broccoli and red-cabbage plants, and shared them with Pat and Jeanette.

"The leeks, especially, were great," Pat says. "I was impressed with how well they did -- they got big and thick -- and how well they held in the garden. None are mushy. I'm still pulling them for potato leek soup."

How they stacked up

* Burpee has high-quality seeds and reliable service.

* Cook's Garden has cheaper, smaller packets of unusual seed, so if either economy or growing unique varieties is your primary concern, it's a good source.

* Piedmont Plant Co. has high-quality, hardy, field-grown vegetable plants and is economical. The selection is limited, though the company is starting to expand it.

* Select Seeds has some wonderful antique (open-pollinated and known for 50 years or more) seeds.

* Shepherd's Garden Seeds have lower germination rates and more expensive seeds, but also sell some neat varieties that are hard to find anywhere else.

* Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co. is good for oddball seeds but its shipment timing for plants is iffy. Also, while plants are relatively cheap, they are smaller with small root systems.

* J.W. Jung Seed and Nursery has high-quality plants.

* Nichols Garden Nursery has an excellent supply of herbs and is economical.

Sources

* W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Warminster, Pa. 18974 800-888-1447 www.burpee.com

* The Cook's Garden P.O. Box 535 Londonderry, Vt. 05148 800-457-9703 www.cooksgarden.com

* Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co. 110 Capital St. Yankton, S.D. 57079 605-665-1930 www.gurneys.com

* J.W. Jung Seed and Nursery 335 S. High St. Randolph, Wis. 53957-0001 800-247-5864 www.jungseed.com

* Nichols Garden Nursery 1190 North Pacific Highway N.E. Albany, Ore. 97321-4580 541-928-9280 or 541-967-8406 www.gardennursery.com

* Piedmont Plant Co. P.O. Box 424 807 N. Washington St. Albany, Ga. 31702 912-435-0766 or 800-541-5185 www.piedmontplants.com

* Select Seeds 180 Stickney Hill Road Union, Conn. 06076-4617 860-684-9310 www.selectseeds.com

* Shepherd's Garden Seeds 30 Irene St. Torrington, Conn. 06790-6658 860-482-3638 www.shepherdseeds.com

* Van Bourgondien 245 Route 109 P.O. Box 1000 Babylon, N.Y. 11702-9004 800-622-9997 www.dutchbulbs.com

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