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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."

cindy murphy
7/22/2010 5:11:44 AM

Hi, Vickie! The atmosphere is definitely a bonus of shopping at a farm, nursery, or independent garden center - that great feeling you mentioned. Have you ever been to Bordine's? I think there are a couple of locations now on your side of the state, but the one I remember is in Rochester. When we were kids, Mom used to go there on occasion, and even then, I remember being in awe of the place. The're putting me on the spot with that one. There are literally thousands of hosta varieties, some with differences so subtle it's hard to tell them apart. Starting from the bottom left, the first one is either 'Candy Hearts' or maybe 'Gold Edger'. Front and center is 'Sundance'. To the right of that is 'Spilt Milk', I believe. Between the two, I see a couple unmistakeable leaves of 'Patriot'; another one that's unmistakeable is the white center and green edged leaves of 'Night Before Christmas'. The dark, solid green in the back is probably 'Ventricosa' or 'Royal Standard'. The largest in the photo is definitely 'Regal Splendor' - the largest in the photo, but not by far the largest hosta; 'Empress Wu' gets 4-5 feet tall! Happy gardening, and enjoy your day.

7/21/2010 9:47:08 PM

Cindy, I love to go to our local farm for plants in the spring-they are always so helpful and give great advice. The variety of plants is unbelivable. I have found myself too at big box stores making side purchases. Not as fun-that great feeling is just not there. What kind of hostas grow so big like that? They are beautiful. Hope you are having a great summer. vickie

cindy murphy
7/16/2010 9:48:54 PM

Mountain Woman. Thanks for your kind comments. I love your blog posts as well, and am looking forward to that garden summary post of yours. I've had more pests this year than I think I've had in the past 10 years combined! (Although most are of the furry, four-legged variety.) Hugs backatcha, Michelle! Sorry about your lavender, but I suppose you can look at it as 'everything's coming up roses', eh? Hope the new baby grand is doing well. Congratulations!

michelle house
7/16/2010 8:59:52 PM

Hi Cindy, I bought some roses at a nursery, they are doing good. I bought lavender at a chain store, the roses are doing great. Lavender, not as much. Ugh. I loved the blog, as always. Hugs Michelle

mountain woman
7/16/2010 3:06:50 PM

Hi Cindy, We are busy this time of year and I've added so many animals too. Also sometimes I just need a break from the blogging world. Anyway, I plant seeds(both flowers and veggies)and for someone who doesn't know anything, I've had amazing beginner's luck. I love broccoli too. It's one of my favorites. I've been gardening with beneficial insects this year and that has been an amazing experience and I can't believe how well everything is doing. I've only had to use Neem oil and my beneficial bugs have done the rest of the work :-) I've learned so much from my mistakes last year. I'm going to try do a summary post later in the year. Mountain Man is building me a larger greenhouse and I'm really excited. I LOVE your posts. I always learn so much and you write so beautifully. Happy weekend to you.

cindy murphy
7/15/2010 9:03:23 PM

Hi, Mountain Woman. I always try to shop local too. Sometimes it's impossible to avoid the box-stores depending on the items needed, but whenever it's available produced locally, that's where I'll buy it. You may envy my job, but I envy you your greenhouse. Do you grow just vegetables from seeds, or a mix of veggies and flowers? I seed a lot of my vegetables directly into the ground, and the rest I purchase as seedlings. I've never had much luck starting seeds inside; one year we had a lot of luck with tomatoes Hubs started from seed, but mostly it seems our house is way too dry, lacking any humidity. I might have to give it a try again - for the last couple of years I haven't been able to find broccoli or brussel sprout starts, only seeds...and we probably eat broccoli more than any other vegetable. You've mentioned how busy you are this time of year - thanks for taking the time to stop in and leave a comment. Enjoy the upcoming weekend.

mountain woman
7/15/2010 6:37:30 AM

Cindy, What a helpful post and beautiful pictures to accompany it. We never shop at big, corporate box stores (okay, once in a blue moon) because we prefer to support small business that are local and don't import everything from China. I'd rather have less and spend more but it's a personal pet peeve of mine. Anyway, we are very fortunate in Vermont to have high quality seeds to purchase and beautiful garden stores for those who buy plants. I've been growing everything from seeds and I'm expanding again next year when our bigger greenhouse is finished. I envy you your job and your advice is always so helpful and full of valuable information I always take away.

cindy murphy
7/14/2010 11:36:55 AM

Thanks for stopping in, Pam. You're right - I really do love my job, and am so glad that years ago I gave up working in an office to do what I fondly refer to "playing in the dirt for a living". I use rocks in the garden too. In fact, I've got a whole blog post about rocks in my head...HA! 'Rocks in my head' - a very fitting description if there ever was one. Which reminds me....I've got about 100 pounds of them in the trunk of my car that I collected the other day, and forgot were still in there! I agree - moving them around is much harder than it used to be! Enjoy your day.

7/14/2010 7:11:06 AM

Cindy, I agree with your co-worker! Those photos are wonderful dreams. I love those display gardens. Beautiful! I have always love how rocks and stones go into flower beds. I used to haul wheel barrows full of rocks around putting them in my flower beds. I tried that recently and wondered how in the world I used to do that. lol....those things are heavy. You have a beautiful place to work. I know you much enjoy it so. Have a great day. Pam

cindy murphy
7/13/2010 6:30:42 PM

Hi, Shannon and Dave. Shannon, yes, the nursery is beautiful. My cheap camera and lack of photography skills don't do it justice. I love an empty garden bed - it's like a fresh canvas, on which the only thing holding you back is your imagination. Good luck filling yours - I'd love to see some photos when you're done. Dave...are you asking if I want rain, or are you trying to pawn off some ditch lilies on me? Rain - I'll take some. Ditch lilies - I've got enough of those, thank you very much. And guess what - not kidding, but I woke up Monday, took a cup of coffee out to the porch, and noticed in the still-dark morning, that the outline of my garden looked different. Upon closer inspection I found someone had left me two huge clumps of ditch lilies in the dead of night; they weren't there at 11pm when I went to bed. Oh, I've got my suspicions, but haven't confirmed them yet. I've got a friend who has a very strange sense of humor - the ditch lilies are a long story, but kind of a joke between us. Thank you both for your comments. Always enjoy hearing from you.

nebraska dave
7/13/2010 2:37:22 PM

@Cindy, excellent post. I whole heartedly agree that the local nurseries are much better at taking care of the plants then the box stores. I mentioned in a comment for your last post that if I buy from the box store I buy them early and take care of them myself, but mostly I buy from a family local nursery that’s been in business for decades. They just have the best plants that grow great. This year, even with all the rain that we are still getting, the tomatoes and bell peppers are doing wonderfully well. I have learned one thing about cucumbers though. They are the bully of the garden. They will reach and try to choke anything their little tendrils can touch. Maybe I should have used them for the patio trellis. They have climbed up as high as my head and have produced a total of eight so far with more on the way. Now that they have started producing I expect I’ll be giving away baskets of them. I’m sure glad I only planted four plants and not eight like I originally wanted. The tomatoes are about the size of a baseball but still green. Not a hint of red yet but I expect it won’t be long before I’ll have that juice running down the sides of my mouth as I bite into a true luscious home grown tomato. I’ve been waiting for this all winter. I did find a good spot for my ditch daylilies but haven’t moved them over to it yet. There’s too much rain to be able to dig in the dirt. Your sure you don’t want some?

s.m.r. saia
7/13/2010 2:04:17 PM

Cindy, thanks so much for this helpful post. The pictures are just lovely. What a beautiful place you work in! You've given me some ideas, and I have an empty bed in front of the house right now that needs some attention...hmmnnn... Thanks!!!