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What Will We Garden: The Search for Healthy Local Plants, Part 2

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Nursery shopping, USDA Hardiness Zones, Garden centers, Choosing the right plants,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgBox-store or independent garden center? Yes, to be fair, I admit my opinions are biased. For the past ten years (or maybe eleven; time flies when you’re having fun), I’ve worked at a family-owned nursery and garden center that’s been in business for over fifty years. Naturally I would choose an independent garden center over a box-store.

There are some things that, when you look on the surface, box-stores have going for them. Price is often lower at the box-stores. Nationwide or regional chain stores buy such large quantities of plants that they are contracted from growers at a much lower price than a nursery or independent garden center buying only a couple of hundred. Often these box-store contracts are under scan-based payment terms. That means a store only pays for product that is sold. The result may be employees having little incentive to keep the plants healthy and looking good. We’ve all seen racks of annuals at box-store garden centers left outside to turn to mush in the frost, and shrubs frying out in the sun on the concrete. If they die, it doesn’t matter much to the store; if no one buys them, they don’t pay the grower for the loss.

Independent nurseries and garden centers have a more vested interest in their plants. Plants that are bought by garden centers often must be purchased at a higher price from the grower than some of the box stores even sell them. For the garden center to get its return, these plants must remain healthy and looking good – which means more care is taken to keep them that way. Nurseries have an even bigger stake. From seedling to saleable plant, years of manpower hours, irrigation costs, and valuable land are invested. These “home-grown” plants are often bigger and healthier – they have to be in order for the nursery to get its return on their investment and hard work.

Growing fields

The box-stores also have convenience going for them. You drop off a prescription, get tires for your car, a birthday card for your aunt, socks for the kids, grab a flat of marigolds, a couple of junipers, and a soft drink on the way out the door. One-stop shopping. But there is a price for that convenience much in the same way something is lost when purchasing produce from a grocery store, rather than directly from a farmer or farmer’s market. It’s nearly an impersonal experience. You rush in, and rush out, totally disconnected with the thing you are essentially purchasing: nature. Buying plants off metal racks on a concrete slab is a completely different experience that shopping down grassy aisles, hearing the birds sing, and strolling through display gardens, watching butterflies and bees gathering nectar. In addition, independent garden centers are community gathering places, often offering seminars, children’s gardens, and are hosts to special events such as local wine tastings or fall festivals.

That said, there are some things to look for wherever you purchase your plants.

At the garden center

Education and experience of employees. In-house training is essential – employees in any business should know their company’s policies. But in addition to company training programs, a nursery or garden center employee should have some type of horticultural education: a degree in horticulture, a state nurseryman certification, or completion of the Master Gardener program. The latter two require yearly continuing education to remain certified. Garden centers are typically staffed by people passionate about gardening, and many of them have extensive gardens of their own. Don’t be afraid to ask if they have any personal experience growing a plant you may be interested in purchasing. This kind of information, tailored to your specific area, is often more helpful than any magazine or gardening book article you can read, written by an author halfway across the country.

Location, location, location. Garden center personnel should know where their plants come from, whether they are grown on premises, bought in from local growers, or shipped from a different state. Plants shipped from other states should come from a similar climate to your own. They are like people, taking on characteristics and traits specific to their own area. Transplant them to a different region, and it takes a while for them to adapt. Studies done on American dogwood for example, native most of eastern North America, show that those grown in Tennessee can take four years or more to adapt to more northern climates and soils, and even longer to grow to the size of those grown locally, though the trees are native to both places.

Signage. It sounds obvious, and should be simple. Yet our customers always comment about how well laid out and well-signed the nursery is. Nearly every issue of every nursery and garden center trade magazine has at least one article stressing the importance of good signage. A well-signed garden center is user-friendly. Imagine getting out of your car at a busy garden center, and being hit with a barrage of color and fragrance. It can be almost sensory overload. Where do you start? You might know exactly what you want, but have no idea where to find it. Signs directing to you different departments should be clearly posted in visible areas.

Departmental signs that point the way

Plants in those departments should be displayed in some sort of order – rows alphabetized by botanical or common name is the easiest way to find something. Each species and variety in that row should have a sign listing the both the common and botanical name of the plant, specific plant information to include its hardiness zone, growing condition requirements, and the price. Individual plants of that type in the row should include a tag with the same information.

A sign for Diervilla ionicera, Bush Honeysuckle

Show Me an Example. After reading the sign, you’ve decided a diervilla will be the perfect choice for your garden. Sometimes looking at the plant right in front of you is not enough. You want to know what its flowers look like but it’s not blooming yet, or it’s spring and you’re interested in fall color. Good nurseries and garden centers have plenty of reference materials on hand. Books, catalogs, and the Internet should all be provided on site to enable you to look up any additional information you need. Planting guides, care sheets on specific plants, lists of what to grow to attract wildlife, what to grow not to attract wildlife, what grows in clay, in sand, in wet soils….all kinds of information you might be interested in, should be available to take home. In addition to these hand-outs, ask about lending libraries – the nursery may let you borrow some of their books.

Display gardens are helpful too; plants look and behave differently in pots than they do in the ground.

A display garden at a garden center

Even a small planted area, like this Japanese-style garden planted between the walkway and building, can get your creative juices flowing.

Japanese garden

Not all garden centers have the space for display gardens. Vignettes made up of potted plants such as these native prairie companions, give you an idea what they would look like grouped together in your garden.

A display of prairie plants 

Promises, promises. Be wary of claims of “maintenance-free” or the more the vague term, “care-free.” There is a subtle difference between “care-free” and “carefree”. Plants marketed as carefree may have a rambling, even wild appearance, but may not necessarily be “care-free”. The only maintenance-free or care-free garden is one created and maintained by Mother Nature – and her idea of what a garden should look like is often very different from our expectations. We can help her along by planting what we think ought to go in a garden, but for us to then walk away and do nothing, leaves the rest up to her. Some plants will thrive in her care. Others will fail, and new ones, uninvited, will move in to replace them. The scene is ever-changing and evolving, and while it is beautiful, it is certainly not what everyone had in mind when they planted their “maintenance-free” garden. Low-maintenance gardening, on the other hand, is entirely possible, but still requires a degree of work.

Diagnostics. A garden center’s job doesn’t end when your plants are loaded in your vehicle, and you leave the parking lot. You’ve planted your garden, and now what? Your rhododendron is looking peaked, your hydrangea which was full of blooms when you purchased it last summer has failed to flower this year, your tomatoes flowered, but never produced fruit, and your maple leaves are covered in ugly black blotches. Slugs, and hornworms, and Japanese beetles. Oh my! And just what is IPM (Integrated Pest Management), anyway? Your garden center can help you determine what course of action, if any, need be taken when something goes wrong in your garden. But remember those snake oil salesmen of days past? They peddled promises to cure baldness, epilepsy, lovesickness, and prevent hangnails….and do it all with one tonic. These cures often did more harm than good, or did nothing at all but line the pockets of the salesman. Use caution if a garden center employee wants to sell you a fertilizer or pesticide – whether it’s organic or not - to correct a problem without first determining what the problem is. Often it may do more harm than good if applied for the wrong reason, or at the wrong time. Often it may not be necessary to apply anything at all.

Remember, good garden centers and nurseries don’t sell just plants and gardening supplies. My coworker likes to use an electric drill analogy (power tools: it’s a guy thing). He says a hardware store doesn’t sell drills – it sells the hole that the drill makes. People don’t just purchase plants. They have in mind a vision – a peaceful dream of being surrounded by aesthetic beauty, or a desire to provide their family with healthy home-grown fruits and vegetables. As corny as it may sound, (and I readily admit to sounding corny), the best garden centers do everything in their power to make those dreams come true.

See also "What Will We Garden ... , Part 1."