Local garden centers: good, bad, and ugly (part 2)

November 6, 2012

Bad Garden Centers -- How to identify them

This is the second in a series on "Garden Centers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly". You can read part 1 here.

Good garden centers care for their plants, provide a good selection, are responsive to what people want, and someone on the staff knows what plants will do well in your area and how to care for them.

Since they don't know what you want the plant for, they don't guarantee that it will grow outside in your area. And most don't give refunds.

Bad garden centers, on the other hand, whisk away dying plants, after they cut off all the diseased leaves on the others and sell them as if they're okay -- a fraudulent practice if ever I've seen one.

Other signs of a bad garden center (or at least a questionable one):


  • employees smoking or eating among the plants (which can spread disease)

  • plants crowded too closely together, leggy or root-bound (which indicate the plants are in too small a pot, a sign of neglect)

  • grossly mislabeled plants (not just plants in the wrong place, but with the wrong tag in the dirt or -- worse yet -- the wrong tag tied on the plant!)

(Yes, I have seen this happen, and this can be deadly if this mislabeled plant is sold as an edible one.)

Then there's the downright ugly: rows of dead plants, foul odors, and wilted plants with bone dry soil. These signs indicate a poorly kept store. Buyer beware.

So how do you protect yourself?

Enter the store just as alert as when you go to an unfamiliar grocery store to buy produce. You wouldn't just throw any old head of lettuce in your grocery cart, so don't do it at a nursery -- examine what you're buying.

Are the plants labeled correctly? By this time, you have done your homework, so you should know what the plant you want looks like. But if not, browse unrelated plants that you do know to see if they are tagged correctly.

Then go home and research your plant, or use your smart phone (if you have one) to do so. Don't buy a plant you're going to eat if you're not absolutely sure of what it is.

Are the plants healthy? Leaves and stems should be healthy and firm, and the soil should be fresh -- moist but not soggy, with little or no salt deposit on the top.

A lot of missing leaves near the bottom could be a sign that they were picked off so as to disguise -- and sell -- a diseased plant. Watch for oddly pruned plants or bare branches on a plant that doesn't go dormant or shouldn't be dormant yet.

Turn the plant over to see if the roots are sticking out of the pot. A root or two is fine but if all you see is a mass of roots, the soil is bone-dry, or the plant looks sick then other plants also might not be cared for properly.

Does the place smell right? It should smell like moist soil (or manure if you're over by the manure sacks). Bad odors usually are bad news.

If you can, check the compost pile -- most open-air nurseries have a place they toss the dead plants. Just wander about until you find it.

If you don't see one, it's not necessarily bad (some places bag their dead plants) but if you do find twenty of the same plant with the same sickness in the compost pile, you might want to be careful with the few "normal" ones on display.

If all you have in your area are bad garden centers, what do you do? You can either shop online (check the Dave's Garden Watchlist to weed out bad ones there), or just be extra vigilant when visiting somewhere that you've had a bad experience with in the past.

Occasionally, things change and a nursery cleans up its act, so if it's conveniently located, a visit once in a while might be worth doing just to see how things are going.

Do you agree? What do you think?

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