Garden designer Kate Mason admits that until a few weeks ago, if anyone had told her to buy plants on eBay, she would have been cautious about it.
“I would never have gone to a garden for a client and said, ‘I’m getting everything from eBay’,” says the award-winning designer (kmgardendesign.uk).
Yet the array of exotics gracing her Garden Envy Beautiful Border display at the recent BBC Gardeners’ World Live, which earned her a platinum award, were all sourced from eBay. And they all looked super healthy.
“It’s been a complete education for me. Now, I feel confident enough to say, ‘Actually, if we wanted something really rare or unusual, eBay is a brilliant platform for finding those tricky things’.”
The plants ranged from huge-leaved Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ to the striking purple blooms of Angelica gigas, along with an array of vibrant orange echinaceas and sizzling red hot pokers.
Most of the plants Mason chose are grown in the UK and many were from a nursery close to her home, which sold on eBay. She was able to go to pick up her orders, rather than risk them being damaged in transit.
“Gardeners are probably a bit tentative about buying from eBay – I was,” she says. “It was a concern for me because you’re not just buying from a nursery. You could be buying from individual sellers, from anybody really.”
Lisa Ward, principal plant health scientist with the RHS notes: “Online market places such as eBay can be attractive places to buy plants, enabling people to find rare varieties from specialist or overseas growers, often cheaply and with the benefit of quick delivery.
“However, when buying from individual sellers online, it is not easy to check the background of the seller or plant. For this reason, there is some risk that plant material could potentially be unregulated – i.e. has not been subject to the necessary plant health checks, and/or may not conform to other regulations in place to prevent the trade of endangered species.”
So, what is the expert advice if you’re buying plants from eBay?
Look at seller ratings
“You have to be cautious and you have to shop sensibly,” says Mason. “It’s important you look at the seller ratings and the feedback ratings and read the description properly, which I did not do on several occasions.” As a result, Mason has received tiny plants which she thought would be bigger, and bare-root types when she thought they would be in pots.
Check your source
“You can see where sellers are based. If it’s in China it will say, or if it’s being delivered from the USA it will tell you. Checking the delivery and postage costs is another good pointer. If you see that something’s coming from America, you can be pretty sure that it will have to be stopped at customs and you might have to pay import tax,” says Mason.
Ward adds: “Gardeners can check mail order and internet seed and plants sellers by visiting their company website and checking that the company’s address and contact phone number is based in Great Britain, to ensure you are reducing the likelihood of bringing in plant pests and disease from unregulated material originating from overseas. If the seller or the origin of plants or seeds is not clear, it is best not to buy them.”
What about foreign species which may carry disease?
“So we had the issue with olives and Xylella (a plant bacterium which has killed trees in Italy Spain and France but has so far not been detected in the UK). I would just be conscious of that and would always recommend buying something so controversial from a reputable seller,” Mason advises.
“Is it an individual seller or a nursery? If they are a nursery, you can send them a message asking if the plant you’re interested in has a plant passport. If it hasn’t, you should say no.”
Ward adds: “Following Brexit, there are new rules for importing plant material to Great Britain. Individuals wanting to import plants for personal use must register as an importer with Defra. Importing plants may require a phytosanitary certificate, notification, documentary and physical health checks and there are costs associated with these.”
What if a plant advertised isn’t the type described?
“That’s where seller feedback comes in,” says Mason. “If the seller is reputable and knowledgeable, they will not be selling a plant they can’t identify correctly. If they are an ‘average Joe’, someone who’s got something extra they want to get rid of, then you might get something you didn’t ask for. But in that situation, contact the seller to double check, and if it’s been wrongly described you can get a refund.”
How much are you likely to save by buying plants on eBay?
“Probably a lot. You can click and collect to save money. When you are shopping on eBay, you are focused on what you want, whereas when you go to a garden centre or nursery you may make impulse purchases and end up with more than you need,” says Mason.
A spokesman for Thompson & Morgan, which also sells on eBay as well as its regular website, says: “The prices vary – some items will be on a special offer exclusively to eBay, others will match the website.”
Do you have any comeback if a plant is damaged on arrival?
Ceri Thomas, editor of Which? Gardening, says: “If you do choose to buy online, it’s important to remember that you have certain rights and that you don’t have to put up with poor-quality plants.
“If you order online and your item arrives damaged, doesn’t match the listing description, or is the wrong item, you can return it for a refund.
“Bear in mind some plants may be regarded as perishable, so you should let the retailer or seller know as soon as they arrive if you’re unhappy with the quality.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in