Local garden centers: good, bad, and ugly (part 1)

October 2, 2012

"I assumed that what they sold locally should be hardy!"

My friend said this to me after her expensive plant died last winter. But is this reasonable to assume?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

A good garden center is a wonderful thing ... clean, full of knowledgeable people who care about your garden, have healthy plants that do great in your area, and is a pleasant place to shop.

I completely support good local garden centers, who are trying to stay afloat in difficult economic times.

Yes, local people "should" know what's hardy, and perhaps even the plants they sell "should" be hardy and only sold if they're going to do well right now ... but then again, look at it this way:

Garden stores (independent or big chain) are there to make a profit. Even if it's too late to plant tomatoes in the ground or a single corn plant will never produce corn, if people ask for them and buy them then the store will stock them.

It may be that someone wants that non-hardy plant because they have a greenhouse, or are planning to bring it inside for the winter, or it's a present for a friend who lives in a warmer area.

Those corn seedlings might be perfect for a child's science project, or part of some artistic display.

The store owner doesn't know why someone might want them, and might not even care, as long as all the inventory gets sold. Someone asked for them (or had a very good reason for ordering them), or they wouldn't be there.

So you have to have a reason for buying something. That's why I keep saying that you need to do your homework BEFORE going to the garden center. You can't just go to the nursery and start buying.

If the varieties you know will work in your area aren't there, another variety might not necessarily do okay. Just because it's at the store down the street from you does not mean it's guaranteed to grow in your garden.

That's another thing: the typical garden center doesn't guarantee your purchase. Most times, they can't -- they don't know if you watered it, or if a two year old used it for batting practice, where you put it in your garden, or if you even have the right soil for it.

Some online garden centers will guarantee that trees will break dormancy, for example, which is a sign that the tree was living when they sold it to you. But if after it breaks dormancy (puts out leaves), you don't water it and it dies, you're out of luck.

An aside: most good garden centers water twice a day. This is important to know because your plant has gotten used to being watered twice a day. If you aren't watering that much when you bring it home (and of course taper that off), the plant's not going to be happy, especially if you don't put it in the ground for a while.

These are the good garden centers: they care for their plants, they 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.

(it may not be the sixteen year old putting your items in your car, but then again, it might be -- in either case, it's not the store's fault if you don't do your own homework)

What makes a good garden center, in your mind?

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