I've had a few emails wondering where I've been the past week or so. The short answer is work and health clashed and I've been knocked flat by some sort of gastro-intestinal bug. Maybe it's goutweed, finally taking root inside my innards, but I've been very unpleasantly sick.
So in lieu of a post about my garden, here's an interview I'd planned to get up on bloomingwriter quite a while back but am only just now doing. Dugald Cameron is owner and operator of GardenImport, a very good mail order company based in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I had asked Dugald about some new plants for an article I was doing for the Halifax Herald, and he graciously replied and sent photos; that got my curiously whetted and I thought it would be fun to talk to him about garden mailorder in these changing times. So here's my interview with him:
1. Tell me about your background; how you became interested in gardening. What prompted you to take up having a nursery? A mail order nursery?
My earliest gardening memories were helping my Dad weed my English Grandmothers garden in Thornhill. Probably remembered more for the superb Tea as reward for my modest efforts than the gardening. My interest flourished when my wife Lynn Pashleigh and I got our first garden. Dad had a greenhouse supplying many plants and seedlings that, with the addition of bulbs, vegetables, annuals, fruit and shrubs we quickly filled a large downtown backyard. Like many gardeners, we were avid readers of gardening magazines, books and longtime members of the RHS. We read about all sorts of plants and bulbs but couldn't find them here. Our "wish list" of plants and bulbs grew ever longer. Some of you may remember that perennial gardening was just starting way back in 1982.
Both of us bought many of our plants, bulbs and seeds from catalogues but there were many we couldn't find. We thought there must be others looking for the same and decided there was a market worth pursuing. Besides, a side benefit was that we'd finally get the plants we'd been looking for.
I'd worked in the advertising business and new how to produce a catalogue. My Father had been a copywriter and new how to write so; together with my wife Lynn Pashleigh we started Gardenimport way back in 1982. Our catalogues are written and designed by us and, pardon my bias, they are the best in Canada.
We've also had a website since 1996 fully illustrated and includes growing information, special offers and a larger selection of everything.
2. What's your operation like? How large, (acreage), what sort of facilities (greenhouse, cold frame, etc)?
We aren't big. Our greenhouses are north of us while our office & warehouse are in Thornhill. We have yard next to our warehouse for our outdoor plant production. Here we harden off plants prior to shipment and pot new plants for growing on and future seasons. Hardening Off is an important, seldom practiced part of plant growing where spends some time outdoors adapting from greenhouse to outdoor conditions. This takes time but the plants love it and are in top shape for shipping. Many of the plants we offer grow best under different conditions and take different times to mature.
3. What are a few of your favorite plants? Are there plants that simply defeat you personally?
I hate this question :-). My favorites change from year to year. We trial numerous bulbs and plants every year. Many of these often become favorites. My current passions are Blackmore & Langdon tuberous begonias, Narcissus, summer flowering bulbs and Clematis. My wish list grows ever longer so there will hopefully be many interesting new introductions in the future.
Personal defeats are everything I've killed. All the garden experts I respect have killed or tossed far more plants than I and I've killed my share. An unfortunate part of trialing new bulbs and plants. Almost all our staff are gardeners and in their opinion the ultimate trial at Gardenimport is for me to grow it. Apparently my specialty is the lavish neglect of trial plants.
4. With spring so staggered in this sprawling country of ours, how do you time shipments and plant growth so that customers can order no matter where they live? Did you design the mailing containers?
In the early days, we were primarily a bulb and Suttons Seeds supplier and offered a selection of bare root perennials and peonies. We also learned that there is a limited range of plants that can be shipped bare root and grown on successfully by our customers. Most bare root perennials are bulbous or thick rooted which left out almost ALL the plants we wanted. Besides, it was often hard to tell dormant roots from dead and we had our doubts about their future success for our customers. Besides, there's a universe of other plants that could be shipped potted if we could figure a way to ship and have them arrive in good shape. To do this we need well rooted plants.
We chose a 1 litre; 11cm (4") square pot for the plants, grow them and harden off prior to shipping. Each pot is placed in a poly bag with a moistened paper towel and rubber bands to hold it all together. This is packed in our custom designed carton that holds the pot firmly but also allows free room above the pot for stems and foliage. These have air holes and are shipped single or in larger cartons with airways connected throughout the parcel. We've learned that no matter how you pack or label, they often travel upside down or experience a rough trip.
5. What's the biggest challenge facing you as a mail order nursery operator?
The greatest challenge of all is to have all the plants in perfect shape, hardened off and ready at the same time as early in the season as possible. We are also at the mercy of the weather.
Nevertheless we do our best but sometimes we must wait for the sake of the plants. The major advantage of our plants is that they can be shipped throughout the spring, summer and fall. We publish 2 catalogues a year Spring and Summer/Fall.
Perhaps and even greater challenge is to offer exactly the right quantity and variety of everything our customers want. An impossibly elusive dream that will never be realized. Plants don't always cooperate. How many to grow is always a guessing game when we offer new plants that few gardeners have ever seen or even heard of. This is not a business for the faint of heart!
6. What do you see as being the new and hot plants this year?
Boy oh Boy is this a good year for great new plants! We've too many to list this year (over 100 new introductions) but here are some highlights.
Brunnera KINGS RANSOM: A new foliage combination of silvered green and gold.
Coreopsis verticillata MOONRAY: A new creamy lemon colour form of the famous Coreopsis MOONBEAM. Blooms all summer.
Coreopsis SIENNA SUNSET: A gorgeous salmon-orange Coreopsis that begins a burnt sienna colour. Blooms all summer.
Hakonechloa: We have 4 varieties, 3 of them new ALL GOLD, NAOMI and NICHOLAS.
Ashwood HELLEBORES: We have 6 varieties including the very choice DOUBLE PINK and DOUBLE WHITE
Buddleia Low & Behold BLUE CHIP
Hardy, no spray Roses
Dwarf Lilac BLOOMERANG: Only grows to 4 - 5' and blooms all summer (heaviest in the cooler weather of spring and fall but they do always have flower)
Hydrangea macrophylla Let's Dance MOONLIGHT and STARLIGHT: Hardy macrophylla that bloom on new wood as well as old.
Hydrangea INCREDIBALL: A larger flowered AND STURDIER form of the beloved ANABELL.
We have 34 Clematis this year. Most of them new, some of them old and all of them great. There's a range from the 12" tall FILLIGREE from Raymond Evison through our selection of 3 - 4' Patio varieties; also from Raymond as are 3 double flowered varieties CRYSTAL FOUNTAIN, EMPRESS and FRANZISKA MARIA. Clematis in containers is soon to become big. They don't don't take much space and bloom a long time.
7. How do you go about advertising your business?
We've had a site since 1996. Many customers now place their orders online. To help this we run a Google campaign and send friendly, informative newsletters.
8. How about the future of Mail Order plants & bulbs?
The future for gardening is bright. I feel that concerns for the environment, global warming and our carbon footprint were first embraced by gardeners. It's all part of being a gardener. Gardeners will save the world.
And thank goodness more people are finally discovering the great taste of home grown produce. Like me, new gardeners are starting with vegetables.
We will travel less and harkening back to the old days, catalogues may become important sources of many things besides bulbs and plants. The Web will evolve and paper catalogues will ultimately be replaced.