Don’t Get “Catfished” by Plants

Good afternoon, everyone!

Boredom is not my friend, (I’m lookin’ at you, COVID-19). While nobody particularly enjoys the feeling, I think I have a more dramatic reaction to it than most. Plant lust is already a problem on the pocketbook, but plant lust mixed with boredom definitely leads to high credit card bills and frustrating failed projects. But before we get into the weeds, sort of speak, I feel that I need to clarify a couple of things.

Photo by Canva

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To me, gardening is akin to the game of golf. It looks super easy, but it sure as heck isn’t! 

Don’t let my website fool you. I’ve killed HUNDREDS of plants in my day. I don’t claim to be a gardening expert. I hold no titles that would ever lead anyone to believe that. However, I do believe my website can be of value to nature lovers around the globe because, if nothing else, you can learn from MY mistakes. If I say a plant is challenging, that means I’ve probably killed a dozen of them before I found some success, if at all. If I say a plant is easy, it means I never really encountered a problem, or I found a surefire way to keep it living without much work on my part after a lesson was learned. I might even write a “theoretical” post about a plant that I’d like to try, but haven’t yet, but I’ll make sure to state what the case may be.

You’ll learn very quickly, if you haven’t already, that lazy gardening is definitely more my speed. Who likes backbreaking work for a side hobby? Certainly not me!

Other things I strongly dislike include math and science skills, such as working formulas to come up with proper fertilizer recipes, or microwaving potting soil to sterilize it, or washing out all pots with soap and water before planting something new. I want to buy a solid pre-mixed, all-inclusive, affordable fertilizer that comes with safe and honest directions and is good for both foliage AND flowers! Is that really too much to ask? I want to trust soil distributors that their soil is clean and free of disease and bugs! I want to believe that Mother Nature isn’t SO demanding that she can grow a plant in a pot that at one point in time, was home to a different plant. Crazy talk, I know it.

Photo by Canva

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The point is, from time to time, my wishful thinking gets the best of me.

Throughout the years, I’ve over-watered, under-watered, over-fertilized, under-fertilized, fought droughts, floods, damaging winds, insects, and had entire seasons crushed by mysterious diseases. I’ve planted sun plants in the shade and shade plants in the sun. I’ve pruned too much and forgot to prune altogether. I’ve left things to die five years after they were planted because I was too busy to re-pot them into a new container with fresh soil. Don’t even get me started on mulching and bed prepping! All of these things are problems faced by gardeners in every region, all over the world, every single day. Yet, above and beyond every action I’ve taken or failed to take, the single biggest mistake I’ve made in gardening is being “catfished” by plants.

Young Althea

How do plants “catfish” unlucky victims?

Just like their unscrupulous human caretakers, some plants look superb in a photo, but when you meet her, you realize her photos must’ve been really old, really Photoshopped, or at the least, taken in really magical lighting. People aren’t just catfished by plants they find online, either. While I probably have suffered the consequences of being underwhelmed by my blind dates with mail-order plants the most, nursery plants have shocked me plenty, too.

You see, nursery plants are kept, well, in a nursery. They’ve received perfect lighting, temps, and humidity. They’ve mingled with their own kind and have been rather spoiled to room service by an attentive staff all trained in the arts of proper silver service. Sometimes these luxury accommodations make them so excited that they forget what time of year it is and bloom madly. Yet when they hit your yard, they pout about having to slum it and forget to bloom for a year or so, or even forever. Some girls really hold a grudge, after all.

Red Twig Dogwood looks super cool in winter, but pretty messy in warm months.

How to spot a plant running a game

There’s really not much trick involved in becoming a wary plant connoisseur. It’s all about planning. Take it from me, impulse shopping is the single costliest mistake you can make as a gardener. I know she looks great in the picture, but she’s in a nursery now, eating the best of the best, and her food is never late, cold, or over-cooked. Don’t let wishful thinking get the best of you. Hope for the best, but when it comes to gardening, always plan for the worst.

How to avoid being catfished

Do Your Homework

Research blogs like mine. Don’t simply listen to the grower. I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s the grower’s job to sell you! They’ll cheat a little on everything from the proper growing zones to the required sunlight. The more people that CAN grow them, WILL buy them. They won’t inform you on little things like how Hawaiian sun is most certainly not the same as Texas sun, or that she’ll grow beautiful foliage but you’ll never see a bloom in real life. After all, it’s five o’clock somewhere, right? So if it’s a perennial tulip in Turkey, surely it’ll be a perennial tulip in Louisianna, right? Not so much, no.

Not all growers are deliberately fudging things, but more are than are not. I’ve shopped with dozens of growers and/or nurseries to try things out in my test gardens. Probably the most honest reviews of a plant that I’ve found have come from Plant Delights Nursery. I’ve been shopping with Tony for years, and while I can’t always afford him, his stuff NEVER surprises me in a bad way. I always know exactly what I’m getting into and the plants are always of top-notch quality, not only upon receiving but after growing here locally, as well. He’ll tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly with all of his stuff. His catalog covers are funny, too, so there’s that. If you haven’t checked them out, you really should. While he should definitely send me free plants for the recommendation *wink wink*, he certainly hasn’t. He earned the shout out for being an honest dude, nothing more.

Again, researching is key. Read about how things do in your climate from local bloggers. Decide what part of your garden offers those precise conditions. If it doesn’t, forget about it. There’s plenty of fish in the sea. If you’ve got the money and the correct conditions, go for it. Take it from me, however, just because she’s pretty on the outside doesn’t mean she’s pretty on the inside. It’s the inside that counts when it comes to plants.

Solidago is bright and cheerful when it blooms in fall, but looks pretty weed like when not in bloom.

Be Wary of Nurseries You’ve Never Shopped Before

I’m one of the most experienced online shoppers you’ll ever meet. My husband will agree with this while crying. Because I’m always on the lookout for some specific exotic or tropical plant that’s not always readily available, I have fallen victim to lots of nursery scams. I’ve had my money literally stolen, without ever having received an item. I’ve received items that were described as large, thriving plants but in reality, were barely living unrooted cuttings. I’ve received dead bulbs, diseased plants, and plants that bloomed the wrong color. I’ve even ordered a specific plant, only to have a totally different plant shipped that the grower was just plain wrong about. I’ve ordered plants that took so many months to arrive, that they showed up in the dead middle of winter, and died before I could put them out! You name it, it’s happened to me.

While there is a certain amount of risk involved with shopping for exotic plants, much like if I were shopping for authentic priceless artwork, most gardeners should never have such experiences at all, and reputable nurseries will do their best to right any wrongs on their part. Many of the experiences I’ve had, only happened because I got so darned excited to find the plant I wanted that I failed to pay attention to super important details like the nursery’s location or reputation.

Learn from this. First of all, there are a lot of laws involved when it comes to shipping plants to different states or countries. But that doesn’t stop the scammers out there! They might try to get away with shipping something to you, but customs might tear it straight up and send you a “sorry for your luck” dear John letter. Let’s say they are following rules and have obtained the proper licensing, but they are JUST SO FAR AWAY from you that by the time you receive the plant, it’s dead, dying, or will die because it’s snowing outside and isn’t really the proper time to plant.

What’s the most disheartening, however, isn’t that individuals or foreign nurseries would try to scam a stranger on the internet. It’s when big named nurseries that send out hundreds of catalogs and run dozens of websites still make a living betting that their cheap prices will keep you from bothering with their ridiculously complicated return procedures. I’m referring to places like Direct Gardening. I still recommend them, here, but I do so with caution. Over the years, I’ve received lots of stuff from them that thrived. I’ve also received stuff from them that was dead upon arrival or died the moment I put it in soil. So while their cheap prices do tempt me, I only order from them knowing that the quality of the plant I receive is reflected in that price and that it’s no less of a gamble than ordering seafood at a convenience store.

I once placed a huge order, (incidentally AFTER writing the post where I recommended them,) but about half of said order died almost immediately. It was the very first time I had ever been let down by them and it made me feel like an idiot for ever having doubted the negative reviewers on their site. I wrote a very long and detailed note and affixed all of the labels they required (which is already a pain and shouldn’t be necessary), only to receive a note back from them about how wrong I was, rather than replacement plants. Imagine if I’d have asked for a refund!

All I wanted was living plants that I’d already paid for, and they argued with me instead. And I’m a garden blogger! I might not know it all, but I definitely know when something has officially kicked the bucket. I haven’t written them off, entirely. No, they have a certain place in online shopping but I’ll never spend more than $50 with them at a time, and I’ll never count on them whatsoever. And before you ask, yes, I understand the process of shipping plants in dormancy and what that looks like. The plants I received were not dormant, they were dead, finished, dunzo.

Re-blooming Iris is a safe bet for the vast majority of the country.

Stick to Trustworthy Fave Plants

This might be an odd recommendation coming from someone who specializes in tropical and exotic plants, I realize. It’s my understanding that the vast majority of my followers only dabble in the unfamiliar upon occasion, but the meat of their garden is made up of plants that are native to their particular environment. That’s how it should be unless you’re a garden blogger, that is! Tropicals and exotics are my passion, but if I’m gardening on a budget than they are the accent, not the main attraction.

Even in my personal gardens, I’ve mixed the weird things with a whole lot of familiar faces. I know I can grow a happy iris because people around the world have grown them forever. I’ve never met an unhappy bee balm or lantana. These are the meat, not because they’re my favorites but because they fill my garden up. Sure, you’re going to find lots of gingers and bananas at my place, too, but every year they’re a risk and I have to know that going into it. Sadly, I don’t hail from the tropics, although I totally belong there!

This ornamental ginger doesn’t look like much here in Texas where the sun burns the leaves – until it blooms the most heavenly fragrant flower on planet Earth.

Don’t Get Suckered By Bloom Pics

We all have that one flattering pic that we use for like, everything. The same is true in the garden world, as well. That’s why you’ll often find multiple growers/nurseries using the exact same photo for selling a plant. What the photos don’t show is that one perfect bloom is taking place in the plant’s native home, or even worse, that the bloom is gorgeous but the foliage is plain ugly!

Photos are very deceiving when it comes to plants. They’re often blown up to look huge when in all actuality, they are tiny flowers or they only show the bloom but not the plant itself. There’re tons of plants that look like weeds but have awe-inspiring blooms for like a solitary week each year. If that’s worth the $19.95 sticker price to you, then, by all means, hit that checkout button! Sometimes those plants are just fine, for say a butterfly garden. Yet curb appeal front flowerbed plants need to look good in bloom and out which circles us back to that whole planning thing again.

Another common “catfish” ploy is to show a full-grown plant, with a grown man standing underneath it, without informing you that the pic was taken in the plant’s native home of Thailand and will never get THAT big elsewhere. Some plants, such as Plumeria and Bird of Paradise plants take a decade or more to produce a solitary flower, but you’ll rarely see them sold without a pic of their famous blooms. Others, especially certain trees, might very well reach that photographed size, for your great-grandchildren to enjoy one day. However, you’ll never live to see it at its fullest potential. Pay specific attention to blooming trees that come from tropical places because while they’ll make a cute accent potted up as just a baby tree, if they won’t survive winters outdoors in your area, they just might not ever produce the blooms shown in the photo.

Then there are the color probs. We might know that the color “blue” is used quite loosely in the gardening world. Yet I’ve bought many things that claimed to be true blues and the photo made them appear to, in fact, be true blues, only to realize that they’re actually just a darker shade of purple. Depending on the lighting, a photo can a rather pastel pink appear to be hot pink or a dull yellow appear to be lemon. I think all of the colors are lovely, but that doesn’t mean I would’ve actually spent the ticket price to get yet another boring shade that I already have on display a million times over, had I known.

Pics might be worth a thousand words if those words are often lies!

Lantana is a trustworthy way to add butterflies and bees to the garden.

Read the Reviews

Yeah, it’s tedious. It’s an extra step to take and reviews are not always available. But if they are, take advantage. While it’s true that there will always be green thumb folks that couldn’t kill a plant if they tried writing said reviews, and then there’s grumpy gramps who never met a product that he did, indeed, find valuable enough for the dollar, I’ve found that following the majority is normally a safe bet when it comes to reviews.

The only real exception to trusting the majority when it comes to reviews on plants is for the bulbs/corms/tubers that are claimed by the reviewer to “not come up.” I say this because it’s been my experience that bulbs don’t rise at the same time for everyone, that particular years’ climate often plays a crucial role in timing, *squirrels, and similar factors might also be at play that is out of the seller’s control. Now if the reviewer says the bulbs were rotten or dried out, that’s a different matter entirely. But to say “nothing came up” is really not broad enough of a description to sway me. Personally, I’ve had many years where I was certain a bulb was late coming up and I got scared, only to eventually see it rise its pretty little face. Luckily, I didn’t write any reviews in the meantime!

I waited before purchase Hosta “Empress Wu” to see if it lived up to the hype. Oh, it so does. This is the beginning of the growing season for my two year old plant.

Let New Plants Make the Rounds First

Every year growers bend over backward to offer new products. Maybe it’s a common plant that they just have never personally carried before, or maybe it’s a new hybrid plant that hasn’t really earned its stripes just yet. A quick Google search can tell you which case it is. It’s important to let new plants stick around awhile so that other people, like myself, can try them out before you bother. Of course, the pictures make them look beautiful, but we already learned about those often misleading photos.

Don’t Buy Plants Online When You’re Bored

It’s the same theory as never grocery shopping on an empty stomach. When we’re bored, everything looks like a fun project. It’s true that if you had all of those pretty plants today, you’d tear it up. You’d be digging holes and watering and mulching, so very thankful to have something worthwhile to do that made the hours pass away.

However, by the time your orders actually arrive, you might not be quite so bored. You might be swamped, in fact. Work, followed by baseball practice, then piano lessons, then hell hours aka homework, dinner, bath, bed might be taking precedence at the current time. It’s during this time that all those impulse purchases seem more like another chore than a blessing.

If you want to mosey on down to the local nursery and buy them out, you’ll have my blessing. But if you’re shopping online, you really should know what you’re getting yourself into, on a later date, not of your choosing. Also, those pretty pics and flowery descriptions that claim ease and jaw-dropping beauty sound so appealing when you’re pacing the house just itching to have an excuse to be outdoors. They aren’t quite so pretty when, at the end of the day, it’s all you can do to crawl into bed, without even brushing your teeth or washing off your make-up and pass out from exhaustion.

This brings us back to that darned planning thing again. Let’s say you really want something pink that blooms in summer and you already know you’ve got the perfect spot for it. That’s when you shop online, and only for pink things that bloom in summer, mind you. Online nursery shopping is like the best invention ever. Gone are the days where we had to make weekly trips to the local nursery just to find something slightly different than our neighbors had. But the convenience doesn’t come without its fair share of drawbacks. Fortunately, the planning is there to save the day! It’ll really cut down on the likelihood of your falling prey to the catfish.

Make sure you have the right requirements. This is Chinese Dwarf Banana. When I planted it, it got plenty of sun. Over time, a tree overshadowed it and now it won’t produce that famous yellow flower.

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The Pricier the Plant, Often the Riskier 

Here’s another fact about plants: the easier they are to grow, the cheaper they are. This is even true with more common plants like said iris from above. There’s grandma’s plain jane iris, that you couldn’t kill with Round-Up and a backhoe. Then there are special hybrid iris flowers that have fancy names like Japanese Shogun and so forth. I’m not claiming that any iris is really considered problematic, but yes, some require actual thought before planting and actual care once growing. The one thing that these babies have in common, is their unusually high price tag. Why? Because they don’t flourish naturally without effort, that’s why. It’s definitely something to keep in mind when being suckered in by that gorgeous photo.

If the plant is easy and grows and blooms without much effort, it’s often cheap. It can be easily mass-produced without complicated scientific procedures, without round the clock care, both of which cost growers majorly. That savings is then passed on to you. Now, this isn’t always the case. There are certain instances where prices are high because of demand. If everyone wants a specific hydrangea, then you can bet that baby isn’t going on sale, even if she’s easy as pie to get along with. Yet, generally speaking, the higher the price tag, the more cautious you should be to ensure you’re not being catfished.

It’s a Wrap

I know, I know. I’ve written another majorly long-winded post to say something that could’ve been wrapped up in a few sentences. But where’s the fun in that? The moral of this novel is that a bit of homework and planning can save you hundreds, if not thousands, in plant shopping. I can’t stress the importance of this fact, at all.

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