(This piece was originally posted ten years ago on my first blog, Whole Life Gardening.)
My first experience with mail order was in the mid-1950’s. In the back of my mother’s magazines I saw a small ad that read, “100 Dolls for $1.00!” A hundred dolls for only a dollar; this was deal that I couldn’t pass up. I found an envelope, put my crumpled dollar bill into it, took a stamp from my father’s desk, and mailed my order off.
Several weeks later a package arrived in the mail. It was a very, very small box, about 4” by 5” by 1”, containing my hundred dolls. They were all pink, all flat, and all about one inch high. At first I was terribly disappointed, but after the initial shock, I played with those tiny figures often, using them to create many arrangements and patterns. There were clowns, ballerinas, and figures with international costumes, two of each.
I was remembering that first mail-order experience when I got the White Flower Farms catalog recently. The first plants I ever ordered through the mail were from this catalog in the early 1990’s. We had an extremely tight budget in those days and I recall that I drooled over the photographs and descriptions. I turned down many corners of pages and circled more plants than I could possibly afford. Finally, I narrowed my list down and sent off a small order.
When the plants arrived, it was the hundred dolls all over again.
The plants that I received were small, bare roots swathed in clear plastic wrap. They looked like some sort of illegal drug. But like those pink plastic figures, these small perennials went on to give me a great deal of pleasure, once I got beyond my initial letdown.
Since that first order 16 years ago, most of my plants-though-the-mail experiences have been positive. Even White Flower Farm tends to ship larger plants now than they did in the past. I’ve learned that the key to having small mail-order plants do well the first season is to repot them into larger containers as soon as they arrive. Given a loose, fresh potting mix in late April, most of my mail order plants nearly double in size by the end of May. Once they have grown a more established root system, they are strong enough to grow quickly when placed in the garden.
It’s our expectations that cause us to be disappointed when those small mail order plants arrive; it’s easy to imagine that the plants will be delivered looking just like they did in the catalog or on-line photos. As in other areas of life, things work better if we can start with what is, not what we expected.
Forty years after I ordered the “100 Dolls for $1.00!” I typed this description in on Ebay. Sure enough, someone was selling a set, in the original box. I placed a bid and won the item, purchasing them for the memory and as a reminder about how expectations can lead me astray.
A week after they arrived in the mail, I got an email from one of the other bidders. She wrote that she was curious to know why I was buying these little plastic figures. It seems that she was interested in them because she and her sister had ordered some in the 1950’s, and her experience paralleled mine. She told me about the disappointment they felt when the small box arrived, and of the happiness the dolls ultimately brought. “My sister and I played with them for hours,” she wrote, “lining them up in pairs on our windowsill, creating dances and parades.”
I love it when people are serendipitously brought together like this, and very human connections are made. I also appreciate being reminded that given care, small things can grow into something that brings great pleasure. In and out of the garden, we don’t always get what we expect, but often, we receive much more.