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You don’t have mail?

If you’re receiving fewer garden catalogs this year, you can blame a bankruptcy

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"Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing. Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago."

The popular folk song might have a more appropriate meaning for gardeners this year if the words were changed to "Where have all the catalogs gone?"

This season, it is not the flowers that are gone but the catalogs. Normally I am awash with colorful garden catalogs of all descriptions. Some volunteer to enter my name into a sweepstakes; others offer me free plants; yet others make extravagant claims of how well my garden will grow. At my office, they are usually stacked several high. The Deseret News often receives a tidy stack addressed to me; many others come to my home.

Yet this year, I have received almost nothing in the way of catalogs.

It has been so bad that I almost had to borrow catalogs for pictures for this article.

Has gardening by mail suddenly ceased to exist?

Not according the Mail Order Association of Gardening. This group recommends you spend time this month curled up with some colorful garden catalogs and dream about planting your spring garden. That is because January has officially been proclaimed National Mail Order Gardening Month.

So I felt I had to investigate why I was not getting catalogs.

Leo Vandervlugt, the organization's president, says, "There's no better way to beat the winter doldrums than to flip through a stack of mail-order gardening catalogs. Garden catalogs show you new possibilities for your garden and also serve as helpful planning tools. Garden catalogs offer the widest possible variety of plants, seeds, bulbs and gardening supplies — including the newest products not yet available in retail stores. Plus, mail-order catalogs and online Web sites offer useful tips and information to help you create a more beautiful garden."

The Mail Order Gardening Association estimates Americans will spend $2.2 billion on mail-order plants, bulbs, seeds, garden tools and garden supplies this year. More than 15 million American households are expected to place orders with mail-order garden catalogs and Web sites this year, spending an average of $140 per household.

Still, the mystery remains. Like the absent flowers, I need to know where all the catalogs went.

The answer lies in part with the bankruptcy of the large mail-order parent company of several large mail-order gardening companies. For more than 50 years, Foster & Gallagher Inc. was a national leader in direct marketing. Over the past several years, it had acquired some of the best-known mail-order garden companies in the country.

Seldom did a week go by that some mailing from one of these businesses did not make it into my mailbox. In fact, they were certainly responsible for the most gardening mail (quantity of pieces and weight) that I received.

Foster & Gallagher Inc. sold far more than just garden materials, yet it managed to acquire a sizable number of companies in the garden arena. It owned and marketed through Breck's Bulbs, Gurney's, Henry Field's, Michigan Bulb Co., New Holland Bulb, Spring Hill Nursery and Stark Brothers. Additionally, it owned the name Vermont Wildflower Farm's mail-order catalog only.

It also marketed its companies in two online store fronts as follows: Garden Solutions (online storefront featuring Breck's, Spring Hill, Henry Fields, Gurney's and Stark Brothers) and MySeasons.com (another registered domain for the above online storefront featuring Breck's, Spring Hill, Henry Fields, Gurney's and Stark Brothers).

When the company went bankrupt, the failure was not kind to gardeners. Many sent checks to order future merchandise, but that money was taken as part of the bankruptcy orders. Others had plants die that arrived in terrible condition or were never sent. They, too, are out of luck. Those with plants that died that were supposed to be guaranteed are also left holding the bag.

It looks like no one will get any money, refunds, replacement or other considerations. They are out of luck on any dealings with this company or any of the companies they purchased.

Not all news is bad. Two of the companies, Gurney's and Henry Fields, have been salvaged. A group of lifelong mail-order gardeners bought them at a bankruptcy hearing in September.

Their promise is "with your help, we'll restore them to the glory days of old."

The new owners have apologized for any inconvenience customers have experienced over the past couple of years. They ask you to give them a chance, and they will make "2002 an historic season as we bring back these seed companies to the way you remember them in the '90s and before."

Both have working Web sites.

Unfortunately, the new owners cannot make good on problems with the previous company. They did not get any money from the settlement but promise that customers who paid for orders that never got shipped will receive a catalog with a special savings certificate to allow them to make up at least some of the loss.

Stark Brothers was bought by another company that has managed to print a catalog and is sending it out. I have talked to several gardeners who have received this year's copy. I could not get their address to come up on my search of Web sites, but it promised to be up soon.

None of the other companies has an active Web site that I could locate. Some will undoubtedly resurface, but the demise is an indication that many garden activities, garden businesses and the people who run them are more comfortable as smaller, more personal operations. Some are undoubtedly just around the corner from you.

In a related note, another longtime seed company was forced to make a Chapter 11 (reorganization) filing. After several acquisitions and a retail-gardening operation failed, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.'s parent filed for bankruptcy protection. However, the holding company said the filing would not affect the operations of the seed company. Apparently the catalogs are being sent to former customers, and its Web site is operational.

Listen to Larry live

The KSL Radio garden show features Larry Sagers and host Don Shafer on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon.