Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Good Customer

What is it about mailorder nurseries? I'm not aware of any other business sector that is so testy about the behavior of its customers, and spends so much on ink, complaining about it in their catalogues. Either the people who sell plants through the mail are by nature a cranky and inflexible bunch, or gardeners are an ungrateful and demanding lot. Two of my favorite catalogues, Plant Delights and Arrowhead Alpines, always have extensive essays instructing us on how to be a good customer. I've never thought I needed anybody telling me how to behave when buying something, but after this last spring, I'm not so sure. I ordered quite a bunch of plants from Arrowhead, and as we had late snow that spring, it took a while to get them into the garden; when I finally got around to planting them, I found about ten plants missing, and e-mailed the nursery to complain about it. The next day it dawned on me that all the missing plants were dormant tubers, as opposed to potted plants, and I remembered I had put the former in a cold garage closet, rather than in the greenhouse, and had just forgot about them. Now, Bob, the owner of Arrowhead has the reputation of being the soup nazi of the mailorder nursery world, so it was with some trepidation that I called him to explain my mistake, but he was quite nice about it (though on hearing my name, he did say "Oh, you're the guy with the terrible handwriting" hey... I'm a retired doctor). Then this summer I e-mailed Barry Yinger of Asiatica, complaining that my Tricyrtis flava had bloomed purple instead of yellow, obviously being the wrong plant. He was very gracious, promising to make it good with my next order. A few days later, the tricyrtis next to that plant started putting out yellow buds, and I realized I'd just switched the labels. It will be interesting to see if anyone highlights their instructions to the customer in the catalogues they send me this next spring.

Oops. Hate it when that happens.

I really need to check out Arrowhead Alpines. I live practically around the corner from them... as far as distance in state goes, and just have never scheduled a trip.

Sounds like a good resolution!
I think any mail order company that deals in living things gets more complaints than, say, book sellers. There are simply more things that can go wrong. I've place a couple of orders with Bluestone Perennials and regretted it. There's nothing wrong with their 2" plants except for the occasional missing item, which they are good about replacing. But the plants are so tiny and frail that they don't survive well in the garden. If one were expecting a 2" Heronswood plant I can see lots of complaints.
I really believe it has a lot to do with market expectations.
Gardeners seem smitten with that
image of the crusty, quirky,
cantankerous, 'colorful' nurseryman
--the pricklier the better. Think
how good the nursery must be if the
owner is a real jerk like the
Arrowhead Guy!

I remember reading about how the
madison Ave.guys who first concocted the White Flower Farm pitch got
together back in the Seventies to
dream up Amos Pettinghill, who
might have been the prototype for
this kind of 'lovable curmudgeon,
marketing. I'd be interested in
knowing of earlier examples in this
country--I know they date back to
least 19th Cent. in UK catalogues.
Bottom Line PS to the above--I cont
inue to look forward to receiving
these catalogs each winter (well,
not WWF, but most of the others) &
ordering from them.

Like many others, I mourn the
passing of Heronswood, for all of
Dan H's over-the-top gushing.
Maybe we're so susceptible to this
'irrational exuberance' because
gardeners are exuberant people at
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