by David Salman

Horticulturist and Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman caring for succulents in the greenhouse.
Founder David Salman caring for rare succulents in the greenhouse.

Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman Weighs In On The "Dumbing Down" Of Horticulture

The "Big Box" stores have become a major force in the marketing and sales of plants across the US. They have transformed the retail plant business over the last 15 to 20 years from an industry traditionally serviced by independently owned nurseries, hardware stores and greenhouses to one that’s dominated by spreadsheets and not horticulturists. They have done so by working with very large wholesale nurseries and gigantic bedding plant growers who are large enough to supply their numerous large stores to drive down prices. This also has the effect of “dumbing down,” or greatly reducing the selection of plant varieties available to choose from.

I went shopping this past weekend at one of our local Santa Fe, NM "Big Box" stores to re-familiarize myself with the current state of industrial plant production and mass marketing as practiced at these types of stores. The experience was illuminating and gave me pause as I put my thoughts together for this blog.

A greenhouse full of High Country Gardens' unique and native plants.
A greenhouse full of High Country Gardens' unique and native plants.

Plant Selection

There is no consistent inventory of most plants, so gardeners can't expect to find much on their "want lists." It's just a matter of luck should you actually find specific plants you're seeking. Generally, the Big Boxes emphasize color and impulse purchases. Their suppliers just ship them what's blooming and what will sell fastest, never mind the fact that those blooms will all wither the minute you plant your new purchase. So don't expect to find any depth of inventory other than the occasional unique variety that finds its way to their shelves. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Annuals - This is what they like to sell best. (Think about it – the Big Box likes nothing more than to sell them to you every spring!) But exercise caution because they sell a lot of branded annuals (Proven Winners and others) that may not be good choices for local use.
  • Special Use Plants - If you’re looking for natives, xeric varieties or even plants for pollinators, you’ve come to the wrong place! The Big Box business model relies on mass appeal, not special needs.
  • Regionally unsuitable plants - This is a very common problem at the Big Boxes. Because inventory decisions are made based on national sales data, often by someone sitting at "Corporate Headquarters," you'll often find numerous plants are unsuited to your soil and climate. For example, I was bemused to find a big selection of Azalea plants which are not even remotely growable in Santa Fe. Beware of these out-of-zone offerings, for instance, you’ll often find numerous non-cold hardy plants for sale that will not make it through the winter. Check the tags for cold hardiness!
  • Employee Expertise and Plant Knowledge – In my experience, I’ve found the garden section workers well-intentioned but grossly untrained in comparison to a local nursery employee. So, don't go counting on knowledgeable, experienced horticulturists to be on staff to answer your gardening questions and make educated recommendations.
  • Hardgoods - The Big Box stores are smart and know that in the spring, plants bring people in the door. They therefore often use their garden centers as “loss leaders” – departments or products that they don’t need to make money on. They then work hand-in-glove with the big chemical and hardgood companies to sell as many profitable, complementary products as possible. Take the big fertilizer and pest-control companies, as an example. Their products, such as Weed-n-Feed lawn fertilizers, Round-Up, grub killer, pre-emergent herbicides and other garden chemicals, are designed to simply make you and your lawn and garden more reliant upon the same chemicals, month after month, year after year. For those who want to feel better about their choices, these giant chemical companies often make ‘organic’ versions of their products, but I personally struggle to trust these related products.
Greenhouse test garden and horticulural expert.
Make sure the plants you purchase are suitable for your zone. Our experts in horticulture can assist if you have plant questions.

What is a Well-Intentioned Gardener to Do?

The solution is simple: Do your homework and make the bulk of your plant purchases from reputable locally-owned greenhouses, garden centers and specialty catalog/on-line retailers. If you expect to have access to accurate horticultural information, regionally appropriate plants and quality organic/natural gardening products, you need to support these non-Big Box vendors. Otherwise who is going to grow the unusual plants and afford to have experienced, educated horticulturists on staff? Who is going to ensure that our vast palate of biologically diverse plants is not simplified down to those that make the most money? I always caution folks that "if all you buy is fast food, don't be surprised when there are no farm-to-table restaurants when you want access to healthy meals." The same holds true for plants.

  1. New Snow Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea New Snow, Small white flowers on tall upright stems

    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) has attractive silver-gray wooly foliage and clusters of tiny white flowers held on top of tall, upright stems. This native plant...

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    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis) New Snow Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea New Snow
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $10.99 Sale $9.89
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) has attractive silver-gray wooly foliage and clusters of tiny white flowers held on top of tall, upright stems. This native plant is highly attractive to butterflies. Resilient and easy to grow, it’s excellent for use in meadows and perennial pollinator-friendly gardens with dry, poor soil. Drought tolerant.
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  2. Hymenoxys hoopesii, Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed, close up of  huge golden-yellow flowers

    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and ce...

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    Owl's Claws (Hymenoxys) Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed Hymenoxys hoopesii
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $9.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and center cone, the graceful flowers are eye-catching. Highly attractive to many types of butterflies and bees, this durable perennial likes average to wet soil moisture and cool growing conditions, not for hot climates.
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  3. Northern Dragonhead,  Dracocephalum ruyschiana

    The periwinkle flowers of Northern Dragonhead (Dracocephalum ruyschiana) are just as fascinating to pollinators as they are to gardeners! Two-lipped tubular blooms resembling dragon ...

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    Northern Dragonhead Northern Dragonhead Dracocephalum ruyschiana
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $11.99 Sale $10.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    The periwinkle flowers of Northern Dragonhead (Dracocephalum ruyschiana) are just as fascinating to pollinators as they are to gardeners! Two-lipped tubular blooms resembling dragon heads appear in late spring, sure to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Narrow lance-shaped leaves are lightly aromatic. With a bushy and compact yet loose habit, this deer-resistant plant is an excellent choice for the front of garden borders, or trailing along walls in full sun locations.
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  4. Red and White Callirhoe involucrata, Callirhoe involucrata, Poppy Mallow, Winecups

    Commonly known as Poppy Mallow or Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata is a native wildflower that decorates the garden with a summer-long display of bright magenta-pink flowers. A spraw...

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    Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe) Poppy Mallow, Winecups Callirhoe involucrata
    $8.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Commonly known as Poppy Mallow or Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata is a native wildflower that decorates the garden with a summer-long display of bright magenta-pink flowers. A sprawling grower, Callirhoe involucrata's long branches spread out across the ground to create a colorful mat of flowers and foliage. Drought resistant perennial plant (xeric).
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  5. Blue Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Hardy Plumbago

    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is one of the most versatile groundcovers for cold climates growing in both sun and shade and most soil types. Plumbago blooms in late su...

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    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma) Hardy Plumbago, Leadwort Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
    As low as $8.79 Sale $8.35
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is one of the most versatile groundcovers for cold climates growing in both sun and shade and most soil types. Plumbago blooms in late summer with deep blue flowers followed by the foliage that turns burgundy red in fall.
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  6. Star Frost Echinops frosty white circular blooms, Echinops 'Star Frost', Echinops bannaticus

    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like ...

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    Star Frost Echinops Star Frost Globe Thistle Echinops bannaticus Star Frost
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $11.99 Sale $10.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like deep green leaves with silvery undersides, ‘Star Frost’ will bloom from mid-summer to early fall. Plant them in a sweep for dramatic effect. At 3-4 feet tall they are just right for a perennial bed, cutting garden, or pollinator garden - bees and butterflies love them too.
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  7. 'Prince's Plume' with bold yellow blooms in front of canyon, Stanleya Pinnata 'Prince's Plume'

    'Prince's Plume' (Stanleya pinnata) has striking presence in the open landscape, bearing bright yellow flower spikes over feathery silver foliage. A native of the North American West...

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    Prince's Plume Prince's Plume Stanleya pinnata
    $11.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    'Prince's Plume' (Stanleya pinnata) has striking presence in the open landscape, bearing bright yellow flower spikes over feathery silver foliage. A native of the North American West and Southwest, its hardy, long-lasting flowers that can last for weeks, or months in the right conditions, serving as a beacon for attracting pollinators. 'Prince's Plume' is a fascinating and deer-resistant addition to xeriscapes in arid, semi-desert conditions. (Stanleya pinnata)
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  8. Russian River Coyote Mint, Monardella villosa 'Russian River'

    Russian River Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') is a superb native CA wildflower that blooms for several months in summer with showy ball-shaped pink-purple flowers. A...

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    Russian River Coyote Mint (Monardella) Russian River Coyote Mint Monardella villosa Russian River
    Sale Price I Save 5%
    $10.99 Sale $10.44
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Russian River Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') is a superb native CA wildflower that blooms for several months in summer with showy ball-shaped pink-purple flowers. A small growing shrub that likes well drained soil in dry, full sun conditions, it has strongly fragrant evergreen foliage that repels browsing animals and attracts lots of bees and butterflies to its nectar-rich flowers.
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Text by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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