Plants by post?

Shopping by mail order is meant to make our lives easier, but the reality is often a little different - especially, it seems, if you're a gardener.

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a woman holding box plants plants purchased online

Shopping by mail order is meant to make our lives easier, but the reality is often a little different - especially, it seems, if you're a gardener.

In fact, according to a recent survey carried out by Which? Gardening, the Consumers' Association magazine, some 38% of customers have experienced at least one problem with mail order plants.

The Association first investigated customers' experiences of buying plants through mail order back in the summer of 2012. While around eight in 10 said they were happy, 36% of people said they had experienced problems, the most common of which were the quality of plants or bulbs provided, packages being left on the doorstep while customers were away and damaged packaging. Others received dead or dying plants, specimens that were too small or which quickly succumbed to disease and some which were rotten on arrival.

In response to this, the Consumers' Association came up with The Which? Gardening Best Practice Criteria, a 10-point plan retailers should adopt to ensure a better experience for gardeners, with points such as giving an accurate description of the plant (including its size), flagging up any particular growing requirements, adopting strict quality control measures before the plants are sent out and ensuring packaging is secure enough to completely protect the plant in transit.

So, did the measures work?

To find out, Which? carried out a follow-up survey of more than 2,500 people in September 2013, and the 2,597 members who'd bought plants by mail order in the previous year recalled their latest experiences.

There were mixed results. Top-scoring suppliers included Blackmoor, Bloms Bulbs, David Austin Roses, Crocus and The RHS Plant Shop, while at the bottom were Bakker, Spalding Bulbs and Garden Bargains.

So clearly some companies have improved their service, but others haven't. Either way though, whoever you chose to order your plants with, you need to know your rights.

If you receive a plant you think is dead, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 says you are entitled to a refund, as long as you have notified the retailer of the problem within 'a reasonable time'. What is 'reasonable' depends on the circumstances, but is typically three to four weeks, or less, from when the goods are received. Contact the seller as soon as you know there's a problem.

If a plant you receive is diseased, you can ask for your money back, again within a reasonable time, or a replacement. In the first six months, the onus is on the seller to prove the plants weren't supplied diseased rather than you having to prove that they were.

It makes no difference if the plants were damaged before they were sent or in transit, it's the seller's responsibility, so you can ask for your money back, within that reasonable time, or a replacement. Don't let the seller put the onus on you to take it up with the courier they used.

If you've had a problem with a plant you ordered and have asked for a refund immediately, but the seller has offered you a credit against future purchases instead, don't accept this offer if you don't want to. Where the contract is breached, you are entitled to a refund or, if you prefer, a replacement. The seller cannot decide you will only get a credit note. Any part of their terms and conditions that might suggest they can, would be unenforceable and could be challenged as unfair.

  • The full report is in the January/February issue of Which? Gardening. Sign up to Which? for a one month trial for £1 and get access to all its product reviews, test scores and Best Buy or Don't Buy ratings. Visit www.which.co.uk/signup for more information.

Best of the bunch - Dogwood (Cornus)

The vibrant stems of dogwood, in shades of vivid red through to deep yellow, provide a touch of drama to the winter garden. Some carry variegated leaves and all are easy to grow, but the one rule of thumb is that you must hard-prune them each spring. Cornus alba is a great red-bark variety, its new stems produced each spring forming a thicket which spreads each year. C. alba 'Sibirica' will give you really right stems, while C. alba 'Elegantissima' bears white edged leaves and C. stolonifera 'Flaviramea' produces yellow stems and looks effective grown against a red-bark variety. Cornus will grow in virtually any garden soil, in sun or partial shade. Prune back to a few inches above ground level in spring.

Good enough to eat - Pruning standard apple trees

Now is the time to prune your standard apple trees to keep them in shape, allow in more light and reduce the amount of fruit they carry, which will result in larger, tastier, better quality fruits. Leave them unpruned and you may get more fruit, but the apples will probably be smaller and sharper tasting because of delayed ripening.

To prune a standard tree effectively, use sharp secateurs or loppers and a pruning saw for thicker branches. The shape should be like a wine glass, with the trunk as the stem of the glass. If cutting off large branches, cut them firstly around 45cm from the base then saw the stump off cleanly beyond the swollen collar at the bottom of the branch.

When pruning shoots, cut them right back to the thicker branch they are growing out of, and try to make the cut as flush to the branch as possible so there are no bits jutting out which could harbour disease.

What to do this week

  • Bring container-grown shrubs into the greenhouse for forcing. Suitable candidates include roses, deutzia, lilac and viburnum.
  • Continue to lift rhubarb roots and leave them exposed to frost before bringing in and forcing.
  • Top up bird feeders and baths.
  • Stock up with seed of the salad onion 'White Lisbon', which can be sown in a glasshouse border or frame towards the end of the month.
  • Firm in any autumn-planted shrubs and border plants lifted by frost.
  • Cut back clinging climbers from windows and doors.
  • Clean tools and oil and sharpen metal blades.
  • On dry days, treat your wooden garden furniture with preservative.
  • Have a clear-out of the shed and reorganise your storage space, putting up tool racks and disposing of clutter.
  • Keep a bag of gritty sand at hand to sprinkle over frosty paths when temperatures plummet.
  • Heel in newly-delivered bare-root fruit trees and bushes by digging a pile of soil into a wedge shape sloping down into a trench, laying the roots on the wedge and then piling more soil over the top, so they can't dry out.
  • If you have a heated propagator, sow seeds of slow-growing perennials such as geraniums, so they'll be ready to flower at the start of summer.