Let’s Go Shopping

Last week I wrote a blog post about buying ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano at my local grocery store, and I was a little surprised to read a comment from someone who was upset that I would promote buying plants at a supermarket instead of an independent garden center (IGC). I was mostly surprised because I didn’t intend the post as a message that you can buy awesome garden plants at a grocery store. I’m glad that Lisa, the commenter, spoke up, so that I could explain as much in a reply to her comment. Also, she gave me some inspiration for this week’s blog post.

I’m not one to tell people where or how to spend their money. However, if someone asked me where to get plants for their garden, I would recommend an IGC over a “big box” store. I buy most of my plants at a few favorite IGCs in my area. Here’s why:

  • Selection. I always have a list of plants I need, and I find IGCs are more likely to have exactly what I’m looking for—and if they don’t have it, someone on their staff can recommend a good alternative. I also like just browsing and seeing interesting, not-so-common plants.
  • Quality. I have usually found that the plants are in better condition at IGCs, especially later in the season, which I believe makes up for the difference in price. I’m willing to spend a little more for a plant that’s been well taken care of, because it’s a better long-term investment. Just last weekend I bought a ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (to join the two I already have) at an IGC. It was on sale, super healthy and good sized. I then saw the same variety at a wholesale grocery club, and they were cheaper but not looking so happy.
  • The People. I like chatting about plants and nursery workers are some of the best people to talk with. They also can offer great advice on planting, care, etc. The “big box” workers aren’t always well-versed in gardening.

Now, this is just what I’ve generally found in shopping for plants. There’s always exceptions. I’ve been to a couple IGCs where there was no one in sight to answer a question, or they were giving off that “don’t bug me” vibe. There’s also a woman at my local Home Depot who works in the garden department and seems very helpful. I once heard her literally begging people to keep their new plants watered. (They were buying annuals for next-to-nothing in July.)

I have bought annuals at Home Depot and Lowe’s, as well as potting soil and tools. I did not feel guilty about it.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. I know for many this is a hot-button issue.

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10 thoughts on “Let’s Go Shopping

  1. I have to add a comment about buying mail order. I don’t know how many times I have heard someone complain about how tiny the mail order plants are. It is imperitive to remember these plants have to be shipped to you. Safety of that plant is paramount. A small number of plants are being sent to individual buyers as compared to truckloads being sent to retailers. What those plants have to endure in the shipping process is totally different. My experience is that reputable mail order companies have developed special packaging to protect the plants – however smaller plants do survive shipping with less damage than larger plants. These companies are not trying to cheat you, they are doing their best to provide you with an intact plant. You are investing for the longer term not instant gratification. If you want instant gratificaton go to the Big Box Stores.

  2. Be wise and Know Your Plant. In the spring the Big Box Guys and the IGC may well have received their plants from the same supplier. When the plants are fresh there is no difference. As the season advances is when care makes a difference. The BBG waters the plants and hope they sell quickly. IGC also hopes the stock sells quickly but they also may refresh their stock. I have to admit that almost every year my plans and intentions are surpassed by my abilities. I have been guilty of neglect of perennials worse than the BBGs. When I discover my ooops I have usually been able to save the plant. The trick is not to finish the plant off with excessive resusitive care. Apply gentle normal care and perennials will recover. They have a normal dormant cycle and they have simply been forced into an out of season dormancy. They may not bloom that year but they will recover. I am a third generation gardener however I have learned most of what I know from experience and research. Again I have to say Know Your Plant.

    • I am a buyer for an IGC and we only buy from growers that do not supply the big box stores. These are usually family run greenhouses/farms that produce premium plant material that has been grown in your USDA zone. The big box guys also bring in plants by the hundreds while we order in smaller shipments more often, giving our customers the freshest and most unique trees/shrubs/perennials we can get our hands on!

  3. My husband and I try to support all local business and avoid the big box stores and chains but sometimes my gardening budget stretches a little farther if I get mulch, soil amendments, gloves and even some annuals from the big box store allowing me to spend a little more for specific cultivars and unique plants and yard ornaments at the IGC’s. We are also lucky to have several garden clubs in the area that have spring sales of annuals and perenials. And as many have noted, the people at all of these places often enhance the experience by their knowledge and love of growing things. And for me, the hunt for new plants is never ending and such a source of pleasure that I can rarely pass by any plants for sale no matter where they are offered without at least a quick look-ok, more often than not, a long look – to satisfy my gardening curiosity. There might be a treasure that needs to come home with me.

  4. I say shop by person not the store and do NOT regret buying from anyplace. I have gotten deals at big box stores, grocery stores, and IGCs and have relished each one sometimes grocery stores have weird plants and I will buy one – often they will have plants that are not available anywhere else – I got a yellow phalenopsis that a friend have been wanting for years in a grocery store. I have gotten roses at a big box store cheaper than any mail order or IGC. I have found plants that I have been looking for at reasonable prices at IGCs I have ordered plants from mail order companies – I do not order plants from a list of mail order places that I have had bad luck with. My advice is don’t be afraid to try out places and keep your eyes open for the plants you want to try.

  5. I’ve gone back and forth. The trade offs:
    Mail order-ease of shopping, selection
    Local nurseries-larger (much) plants, support local business
    As I have educated myself about gardening I generally am looking for specific plants. Living in a rural area it’s not generally easy to find them but, after having just received some ridiculously small plants via catalog a vow to buy local whenever possible.

  6. I’ve worked both sides of the fence.
    For almost a year I worked at a big box store in outside lawn and garden. I currently own an IGC. I’ve found there’s a place in this world for both.I hated working at the big box and quit because I felt many times plants were treated like a ‘commodity’. For a plant lover that is very hard to accept. We plant nuts love our plants like family. 🙂 Working with customers first hand I had to learn to accept that there will always be those who only shop big box only.

    Then there is my IGC heart. This is the second time I’ve been in the IGC business. The first time, in the 80’s I operated a plant farm/gift barn for seven years. When my son was one, I closed. Last year after a 16 year hiatus I reopened. The world has changed much and along with it gardening. Selfishly I think everyone has gotten into ‘my business’. Family businesses are being swallowed up by the big boys. IGC’s are knowledgeable, caring, and most offer unbelievably good service. And more importantly…a plant is treated like the living, breathing plant that it is.
    Customers have the ultimate choice. My hope is they continue to support ‘family’ businesses!

  7. As for buying annuals at big box stores: I work for an IGC but get far better prices on flats of annuals at the big box stores. Not everyone may know this — and it may not be true everywhere — but these annuals are grown locally (within 25 miles) at wholesale greenhouses.

  8. I help customers of independent garden centers choose the basic elements of a garden sanctuary through a guided shopping tour, called Garden Sanctuary a la Carte. These type of value-added presentations are something IGCs can offer their customers that go far beyond basic plant care tips.

  9. Sweeping generalizations are convenient substitutions for measured thinking.
    My 12 year old son “rescued”( with permission) some orchids in a Home Depot trash bin. The orchids are still thriving and he is now 26. Like your own big orange outlet, ours has some knowledgeable employees that care more about plants than sales.

    On the other hand, the tomato blight of a few years back was introduced via local Big Box stores.

    And some IGCs try to get a jump on the season by buying plants from Georgia that will not do well in Pennsylvania. Lesson: Shop the person, not the store!

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