Online nursery reviews(continued, a year or two later).

firefightergardener(7/8)May 8, 2011

A couple of years ago I really ramped up my conifer collecting efforts and this lead to significant purchases of conifers from more then a dozen online nurseries. I decided it would be beneficial to some of collectors and new conifer enthusiasts if I shared my experiences here. I created a series of reviews which included photos, rough price to plant comparisons and my overall opinion on these companies. Since many will be buying from a nursery blind, for the first time, I figured it might be helpful to have an idea what to expect.

For the most part, online nurseries offer a pretty close bang for your buck price, with some offering cheaper, smaller plants and others offering harder to find, larger plants at a higher price. My goal wasn't necessarily to direct you to a certain nursery over another competing nursery, but rather to give you options and ideas that better fit your own plans and fiscal budget.

A year or two later now, my online purchases have been winding down but I still purchase enough plants yearly to give an update(with photos!) from the various nurseries I still frequent.

One thing probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. If I am buying from the same company again a couple of years later, it would seem I have decided they were worth repeat business - always a good sign for your own success. Ford is still around selling cars because they sell GOOD cars. The same can be said for the nurseries I still frequent. DISCLAIMER: NONE OF THESE COMPANIES SELL CARS!

These reviews cover four basic attributes. I rated these four catagories from one star(*) to five stars(*****) with one star left for a poor rating and five stars being exceptional. For the most part, I've tried to remain positive with most reviews, though there were some less then exciting orders from various companies.

The catagories rated were:

Inventory: How large a variety of conifers the particular nursery offers. Basically how many different cultivars(and different sizes) the nursery offers. Extra credit here also for nurseries offering the very rare and choice plants that are scarsely seen.

Stock quality and size: Some nurseries offer gorgeous plants in perfect healthy, others are clearly neglected some, often just from growing in crowded situations and lacking the right amount of sunlight. Also nurseries offer very different sizes to their stock. I've purchased from different nursuries and received 'gallon sized pots' that were anywhere from a one year graft to a spilling over, root bound 6-7 year graft.

Customer service/General experience: Many nurseries are ran like businesses, some are run like families. You'll notice if you buy from multiple sources that some are REALLY trying to make you happy in order to have a lifelong customer while others just tend you treat you with indifference. Also, some companies will gladly replace a conifer if there is a problem while others can be hard to get a hold of and/or won't replace anything if you lose plants.

Value: This rating, which most people will probably consider most important given the economic times, will be my best attempt at rating nursuries on 'bang for your buck'. This means that I won't neccesarily give the cheapest sites top rating, but rather the overall value, whether they offer nice plants at great prices or new plants at unbeatable prices. Some retailers do offer very young plants at very high prices and will likely score poorly in this catagory.

My updated reviews should appear below over the next few weeks.

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Don Howse, from Porterhowse is still offering a remarkable collection of conifers. You can view the currently available plants at his website, Porterhowse farms probably offers the largest selection of conifers in the US, some 1,000 cultivars. As a serious collector, his online nursery is a highly valuable resource for plants.

I have yet to find an online nursery with a larger available selection. The list is so large that it's very difficult to choose. Unfortunately the list is so large, frequently Don can't update it as often as he'd like so some of the plants that show as available actually aren't. Emailing Don is your route to finding which are really available. Another problem is that because the list is so large and the plants so rare, getting photos or even information about some cultivars is a mission in itself. Don will provide descriptions to plants you specify interest in, but there isn't any detailed photo section or description section for this huge 1,000+ plants.

Don works with a wholesale company who I believe does most/all of the grafting and also takes care of his nursery. They do an excellent job though as plant quality and health is usually excellent. Porterhowse farms offers two plant sizes, GP and #1, which is short for grafting pot and one gallon sized plants. Generally GP are new one year grafts though in some cases two or three year old plants that haven't been potted up yet. Though these plants are always in good health, they are DELICATE sometimes and caution should be taken with planting. Porterhowse' #1 pots are nice sized plants, usually between 2 and 6 years old and are planted in a terrific potting mix. These are certainly some of the healthier, robust plants you'll find in one gallon size.

Don is a one-man business and has been working in the nursery field since I was in elementary school. He understands keeping the customer happy is a great way to ensure future business and as such, from the few plants that have died from Porterhowse, all have been replaced with healthy, happy new replacements - at no charge. Shipping is generally very fast, well protected and inexpensive and the price is very fair compared to other nurseries. The lone nitpick here is that Don can get busy, as you can imagine, so you'll need to exhibit some patience if you're trying to contact him or get current inventory info. Remember, this is largely a one-man operation.

Porterhowse offers VERY rare plants and that is often reflected in the price. If you want cheap plants, go elsewhere, but if you're looking for very rare, healthy cultivars that you can't find elsewhere, Porterhowse is one of your better options. Grafting pot plants range from $20-30 and one gallon plants generally $30-50. The photos below should give you a better idea.

Abies nordmaniana 'Berlin'. $20(GP).

Picea breweriana 'Wustemeyer'. $20(GP).

Abies fraseri 'Rawles WB' $25(GP).

Picea engelmannii 'Swan Creek'. $20(GP).

Whistling Gardens nursery(Canada) in the next few days.


Here is a link that might be useful: Online nursery reviews(original, featuring Porterhowse Farms)

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 4:00PM
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Thanks and bookmarked. Prices seem pretty fair, I've paid anywhere from $25-$50 per plant this spring from multiple companies.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2011 at 7:41AM
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While I continue to round about my Whistling Gardens review, I wanted to update my thoughts on Coenosium Gardens.

Bob and Diane Fincham have operated Coenosium Gardens largely by themselves for three decades now. Any seasoned collector is familiar with their nursery and their customer base is no doubt full of return purchases. Bob and Diane are planning on riding off into the sunset in the next few years. After Spring 2013, they will no longer be shipping plants and as such, if you see plants in their inventory you want, you may want to jump at the chance while they are still in the retail business.

Coenosium Gardens has always had an extraordinary inventory of dwarf and miniature conifers, lately however; they have increased their available inventory with updated brand-new plants and even some classic, larger conifers have began to reappear. Also, the addition of the newly released 'Acrogold' cultivars puts them easily into the best inventory catagory.

CG has always offered 2+ year old specimens or larger. Usually, and particularly with very slow/small growing plants, 3-5 year specimens are often offered. Sometimes, plants are available that are even older then that, literally specimen plants right out of the pot. CG offers two plant sizes(and one price), 5" pots and 1-gallon pots, though the move to 5" square pots has been almost 100% complete. These pots ship easier and also allow a good deal of root system to form, allowing quite healthy, older plants. See the photos for a better idea.

Bob and Diane work hard all Spring to get off orders to excited customers. I personally have only seen their shipping from 'their' side, and so I don't have a direct comment about their shipping or shipping speed. Presumably since they have been doing this since I was in diapers, they know a thing or two about shipping and packing conifers. Bob has always worked out solutions to the rare few times I've had plants come up ill. I imagine they'll handle things on a case by case basis, but you don't merit this kind of customer loyalty without making people very happy.

VALUE: ***
Glancing through the new 2011 catalog of Coenosium Gardens, it seemed to me that many plants had slightly reduced prices from a couple years ago. I don't remember as many plants in the $25-30 range but perhaps this is just my memory failing me. Either way, $25-50 are the common prices, very similar to Porterhowse Farms and again, we're talking some nice sized specimens. Especially concerning some of the smaller plants, finding a 4-5 year old specimen(or older) is a nice catch for any collector/gardener as these little guys become instant gratification of the tiny kind. I'd say a visit in person would deliver four or even five star value as you can pick precisely the plant you want(many pines are very unusual), or see which plants might be a year or two older then others. The nursery and gardens are a true wonder to visit and I can't encourage this strongly enough to anyone in the Pacific Northwest area.

Overall, a great rare selection of premium, healthy plants at a reasonable price from experts in the conifer field and you really can't go wrong with an order from Coenosium Gardens. As echo'd by other collectors here, they're an annual purchase(or two!) for most in the hobby.

Note about these photos. ALL of these plants were purchased in the last 12 months. The prices reflect current catalog examples.

Abies alba 'Bystricka'. Not currently in the online catalog(but possibly still present in the inventory), price unknown(I think $40).

Abies concolor 'Bryce Canyon'. A newer offering, also not listed yet, this little guy was in the ballpark of $35-40 as well.

Abies nordmanniana 'Petra'. $40.

Pinus nigra 'Pipounion'. A highly coveted tiny pine. $40.

More reviews as I find the time.


    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 12:13AM
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Pinus nigra "Pipouniou " !


    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 2:10AM
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Corrected Clement, thank you. Coenosium Gardens has a misprint on their catalog website.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 2:51AM
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coniferjoy(z7 The Netherlands)

Abies nordmanniana 'Berlin'
Must bin written as
Abies nordmanniana 'Berlin-Dahlem'.
It's found as a witches' broom by my German friend Gunther Eschrich in the small town Dahlem which is nearby Berlin, Germany.

Picea breweriana 'Wustemeyer'
Must bin written as
Picea breweriana 'H.B. Wustemeyer'.
The "H.B." stands for "Hexenbesen".
It's found as a witches' broom by Werner Wustemeyer, another German friend of mine.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 3:50AM
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Thanks for these great reviews, Will. Much appreciated. I have a question for you regarding Porterhowse. If I ordered a 1 gallon size of plants such as Picea glauca 'pendula' or Picea pungens 'The Blues', how tall is such a plant likely to be? I always have a hard time picturing how large a plant I am buying based only upon pot size.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 11:20PM
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John, both of those cultivars are classified as intermediates, meaning once established they will grow between 6-12 inches a year. I'm completely guessing but I would say you'll see 3-year grafts of each, or about 12-15" tall. They'll look small but since they grow fairly fast, you won't care in a few years.

A specimen I bought as 2-3 year old plant in a one-gallon pot and planted in the Spring of 2009(so two years in the ground).
Picea pungens 'The Blues'.


    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 11:39PM
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Thanks Will!

That's interesting, but also confusing... For example, I've seen plants from Song Sparrow in 2.5 qt pots that are 2 feet tall, and here we have a shorter plant in a 1 gallon pot. It's hard to know how to expectation set, short of actually emailing each vendor to ask the height of the plant prior to placing an order. 1 gallon *sounds* larger than 2.5 qt, but this may not necessarily be so. It seems like they should publish the height within a certain range along with the size of the pot, to give an idea of top growth vs. room for roots...

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 1:15PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

All four (actually five since they had to replace one) from Song Sparrow had very nice top growth but where all VERY VERY root bound. It was a pain to unravel these plants. I could see they where also left in the 3.5" pot for quite awhile as well, which magnified the issue. I'll probably give them another shot at some point in a couple years to see if I get better results.

Thanks for the reviews Will! I'll have to check out your previous reviews from the link as well.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 9:29PM
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Quite useful. Please keep them coming.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2011 at 2:48PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

In my mind its never too early to start planning for fall (or next year for that matter).

After going through this thread and the previous one I noticed every company had two stars for value. That means everyone is below average.

Besides Coenosium, anyone out their above average for value?

I feel like Girard's provides an exception value but the quality can be hit or miss (based on my first order it was mainly miss).

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 3:47PM
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I'll be doing a review for Bethlehem Nursery shortly. I'm tempted to list them as four stars for value as Dennis provides exceptional plants for a very affordable price. That said, the plants are generally 1-3 years old, so again, it's hard to call them a bargain either.

I think the lack of four or five star ratings in value is more attuned to what miniature and dwarf conifers are - premium garden plants. Most trees and perennials grow fast, are easy to propogate and attain a sellable size very quickly, whereas conifers take much longer and more pre-sale care. I think if I was rating the nurseries on a bar against eachother, there might be more five star values, but taken as a whole, conifers themselves are expensive plants. It's all about how you see things. That perennial you pay $8 for may be gone in 5 years while that conifer will be growing into it's pleasure years. Twenty years from now, most perennials are long forgotten, but that conifer you spent $40 on is now your gardens most amazing plant.

In this regard, as long as the conifer was healthy and not too poorly shaped, all conifers provide excellent value, last most if not all of your lifetime and provide decades of good looks.


    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 2:06AM
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coniferjoy(z7 The Netherlands)

Will, nice words and you're completely right with this statement.
Indeed, my friend Dennis does have a very nice selection of conifers, specialy Sciadopitys!

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 2:55AM
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We have an online seller (not exclusively conifer) who has one of the best selections of choice and hard to find conifers. They have definitely broken ranks with the usual prices asked and now you are looking at $55 as their most common price for a good young specimen. If you go to other nurseries then you can pick up an Abies nordmanniana 'Munsterland' for around $25 in the 'fairly choice' tier or maybe a Pinus mugo 'Jezek' or Abies lasiocarpara 'Logan Pass' in the 'very choice' tier at $40.

I don't begrudge the first seller their tactic because in a couple of years you will have an unusual and developing conifer that has well outstripped the original price. And they're really working back from that in their calculation along with the fact they may be the only source. What they can't guarantee though is better growing luck with the higher price. That's the risk.

If I was prepared to part with multiple $55's then I'd be grabbing a Picea engelmannia 'Jasper' and a Picea sitchensis 'Siberzwerg' and a Picea abies 'Starry Smolivec' etc. like candy.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 8:21AM
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May still be wrong though.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 8:24AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Will, thanks for the clarification. I was looking at value as if it was benchmarked against other conifer mail order sources not necessarily the value within the overall plant sense.

In the end, you probably have to try multiple sources. I'm sure you can't get a perfect order everytime. You win some, you lose some. I'm trying to build a list of 3-4 sources that I can try next year.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 9:29AM
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coniferjoy(z7 The Netherlands)

Severnsite, 'Silberzwerg' is right, it's German for "Silver Dwarf"...

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 10:06AM
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Conifer, 'Seversite' must be written as 'Severnside' which is the right spelling. It's name is after the river Severn in the UK beside which it is found.

----> ;0)

Thank you for your clarification on 'Silberzwerg' I now understand the 'zwerg' part of various conifer names.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 10:20AM
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coniferjoy(z7 The Netherlands)

Ok, thanks and btw for the prices you mentioned you can load a car full of plants here at my nursery ;0)

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 10:40AM
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That, I was hoping :)

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 11:05AM
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I tink you also need to look at availibility,If a grower has the plant you want Then how do you determine the value.Do you want it bad enough to pay a premium? I buy from Dennis because he has a lot of thr plants i want and a lot of cultivars that no one else seem to have(newer cultivars) to me it is not a matter how big it is opposed to if it one that i want. Joe

    Bookmark   July 13, 2011 at 7:02PM
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