1. On the topic of "shopping" questions:
For a bit of history, in the early days of beta, we had an explicit shopping question: Where to buy cane supports in London. The question is now deleted and the link is visible only to 2k+ users, but you really aren't missing anything; the title sums it up. In this discussion, it was generally agreed that such questions are inherently too localized and the answers will not really be of much value to others.
Although not technically shopping questions, questions such as recommendations for plants matching certain criteria or plants that grow in certain hardiness zones, online resources for gardening, etc., which are similar in spirit to a shopping question, are now allowed on the site. This again, was resolved through meta after some initial objections to their closure.
1A. Recent questions:
Recently, we've had a few questions explicitly asking for places where they can find seeds for certain plants:
- What are common places to try for alternatives to commercially available seeds?
Both of these were closed as "Shopping recommendation" questions as per broader, network-wide guidelines. The first question certainly falls squarely in a "Where can I buy X" category. Now I really do not know how difficult it is to obtain Schlumbergeras, but there is no way of universally enforcing a "difficult to obtain, hence must be ok to ask" policy. If we allow one plant then we pretty much ought to allow every other plant. True, we might miss out on a few questions because of this policy, but I strongly believe that in the long run, this will result in a higher signal-to-noise ratio for the site, as it'll be free from litters of disposable questions.
Coming to the second question, "... it would be good if we could get some answers from all round the world for others to benefit." <-- this alone makes it a question with several answers and no single correct answer. Imagine someone landing on this question a year from now. They'll have to wade through pages to see if their country is represented and if not, tough luck. Besides, upvotes will only reflect the percentage of users from that country that are active on this site and not necessarily the usefulness of the answer.
However, guidelines merely serve to guide and each individual community is free (to an extent) to decide how much to bend it and where to draw the line. These two questions and some subsequent comments/discussions have us mods scratching our heads, wondering if we should allow these questions, and if so, under what conditions or continue with the status-quo and close them.
1B. Avoiding the shopping trap:
Note that not every recommendation question has to be off-topic. Inside the post, deep down, there might actually be a real question lurking that's squarely on-topic and can be objectively answered. For example, we had a gardening tool recommendation question that was closed as not-constructive because it was a straight up "tell me what to buy" question. However, bstpierre found a way to turn it around into a general "How do I buy long lasting tools" question, and it was reopened. Granted, the revised version was not what the OP actually wanted, but I hope the community sees why the first was useful only to him, whereas the second version is useful to everyone.
Similarly, I find the idea of listing resources (not vendors) to try for the second question quite interesting. This is a much better option than what the question originally asked for. I'm fully inclined to open it with that focus, if this the answers to this post are favorable.
2. Proposed policy on such questions:
In order to arrive at a compromise, I propose the following policy for questions of such nature.
- Questions asking for vendors for plants X or materials Y, etc., will be explicitly off-topic. It will be closed outright and possibly deleted.
- Along the same lines, all big-list, over generalized "What is a good vegetable to grow" kind of questions will be closed.
- Questions asking for resources are on-topic, provided it is not a "big-list" or "compile all possible options" type of question.
- Questions asking for general ideas for where to find (e.g., library/university extension/farmer's market), but not localized to a specific place (e.g., library in Montana) are on-topic.
- Answers to these questions must be comprehensive and well reasoned. Simple answers/one liners like "Google this", etc., will be deleted/moved to comments.
If the community agrees with this (modifications/additions are welcome), then the first question will remain off-topic, whereas the second can be reworked/reworded as per bstpierre's suggestion.
Again, none of this is because we hate these questions or because the moderators don't like these questions. We do like some of them, but we also have to think of the community rather than the individual. Although we try to edit posts into shape, it is possible that the moderators miss something. The community members can always edit posts into shape, make it more acceptable and flag it for reopening.
3. Alternate solutions:
While most of these don't make constructive questions for a Q&A site, they sure are good questions to drop in a chat room. In addition to the main site and meta, chat is a third option designed specifically for real time discussion, but is often neglected. Admittedly, our traffic is still low, so chat rooms don't necessarily have the views required to guarantee an answer either way, but if we lay the framework for this now, it might take off well when we do get the traffic numbers (hopefully in spring).
Any user with 100 reputation can create a chat room. If you think there is an aspect of gardening that might be off-topic/too discussiony for the main site, then simply create a chat room and invite people. For example re: the two questions above, one of you could create a room called "Online sellers for hard-to-find plants" and post your requests there. Maybe even have a corresponding post here on meta, announcing the new room. I'm not guaranteeing any results right away, but I strongly feel that's the right place for it and right way to go about it. In time, it'll grow to be a little hub where people can post requests and someone who knows or is a wizard at Googling, will post a few links.