A Few Words About Shopping For Plants At The Big Box Stores

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.

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Text by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republishing an entire High Country Gardens blog post or article is prohibited without written permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.

13 thoughts on “A Few Words About Shopping For Plants At The Big Box Stores”

  • Carole Sheridan
    Carole Sheridan 06/01/17 at 8:02 am

    Now that Timberline Gardens has closed is there a Denver nursery that sells your plants?

    • Wendy

      Our plants are grown in greenhouses in Santa Fe and Denver. They all ship from Denver, but the greenhouse isn't open to the public. If you order locally, plants are typically delivered in 1-2 days.

  • Crickets

    Yes, super good points, thank you! Sometimes my gardening friends balk at HCG prices...but HCG customers are getting support for the LIFETIME of hardy, sustainable, long-lived perennials, in addition to exceptional varieties, knowledge and information equivalent to studying for years with native plant societies and master gardening programs, etc.

  • Kathleen Dye
    Kathleen Dye 06/02/17 at 10:22 am

    David Salman, we must have both gone to the same "big box" store brand . I was killing time at one in Casper WY ,
    and just looking around, and found some azaleas and a honeysuckle both labeled for zones 7 to 9 , and at a pretty hefty price $55 ) . In this soil, dryness and wind, they probably would not survive the summer , let alone a winter here

  • Anna

    I wrote about this 10 years ago when one propagator in particular broke their promise with small independent growers and went big box. The nursery I was managing went under in about 5 years due to the competition. We had been growing cultivar plugs in an excellent medium. The plugs were presented to the customer in 4" pots and were very healthy. Independent growers made them popular. We had a huge variety. We had record years before that plant propagators took the best sellers and used a big grower to supply the big box. They had promised they wouldn't do that. I wrote the facts as I saw it. Plants grown by the big grower and supplied to the big box....we grown in poor conditions.....overtreated with growth regulators.....and fizzled out in the heat of summer. But....they were cheaper so people who were used to getting their plants from our small independent store....bought them at the less expensive prices. When the plants died mid summer......the customer lost interest in the plant. This whole less expensive movement drove the smaller independents out of business in our area. Now the folks are left with what big box wants to buy. The propagators did it to themselves. Too many hydrangea, petunia, Rose of Sharon, and so on genetic varieties out there. The average back yard grower doesn't know the difference. It's such a mess right now. You can not get quality plants any more. I had embraced propagators and the new cultivars but after I saw what they did to the independents....I'm against them.

  • Michelle Derviss

    I dislike the stereotype in this posting.
    Perhaps it is because I live in a horticulturally rich area of the country but several of our local big box stores have highly skilled horticulturists ordering for their nurseries.
    It is not uncommon for me to come across the who's who of horticulturists and garden designers at the San Rafael Home Depot and see their cart loaded up with uncommon and new to the trade plant introductions.
    I realize this may be the exception to the rest of the United States but we are incredibly lucky in the North Bay area to have big box stores employ some really skilled plant buyers and horticulturists.

  • Carol

    The big box stores offer plants that have been treated with Neonicotinoids, which kill honey bees, so please shop only at local nurseries - and ask them, they'll tell you how their flowers/veggies are grown.

  • Chezron

    This is all true, but at least I can buy a gallon-sized pot that stands a chance of surviving. Mail order plants are barely seedlings in tiny pots. I won't spend my money on them, no matter how special.

    • Wendy

      While it is true out pots are smaller, the root systems are often just as substantial as those found in gallon pots. And they're something to be said for plant vigor in a smaller, younger plant. We've done a lot of testing and in a year or two's time, we find that our plants, grown in 5" deep or 2.5" deep pots outperform the ones that started in a gallon pot.

      • Karen

        I have found that when I purchase the deeply rooted plants from High Country Gardens that are appropriate for my high desert landscape with its exceedingly poor soils that their performance exceeds even those larger plants of the same variety purchased at our quite wonderful local nursery. For example, I bought Apache Plume from those two sources last year and planted both in my sculpture garden. Same soil, same timed watering system, same sunlight, etc. My HCG plants are now about 3 feet tall and blooming; the others died back and are just now showing new growth. They will survive, I am sure, and will ultimately thrive, but this difference in performance is marked. For foundation plants I almost always rely on the smaller, deep-rooted plants. For other perennials and colorful annuals I use our local nursery with its knowledgeable staff and locally adapted varieties. And I save purchases at the big box stores for irrigation supplies, tools, and packaged seeds.

  • Greg

    I shop big box often to find deals. As I am an expierenced horticulturist. I bought 3 Dark Towers Penstemons 3 gallon for $5.00 each and Panicum Hot Rod 5 gallon for $10.00. However, I would rather buy from local independent nurserys. I buy from mail order for genetics and natives.

  • joan

    But specialty nurseries don't have electric carts making more than a 15 min very painful, 20 minutes impossible for me. The few I tried also didn't have disabled parking spaces. So I'd like to shop there, even though far away, put you/they don't make it possible. Lowe's and Wal-Mart do. Sarasota, FL

  • Anna

    This is a very interesting article, and I agree with the points made. I came across this page because I was trying to find out what the big-box stores' huge displays of "petunias" were. The tags are all generic, only describing the plant as "petunia". I've often wondered WHAT THE HECK ARE THEY??...a Surfinia, a Wave, a Limbo? Are they a spreading variety, Are they a mounding variety, Are they known for their disease resistance? WHAT THE HECK ARE THEY??

    My gardener neighbor and I were exasperated when we both purchased perennial plants from HD that were marked as winter-hardy for this zone, only to find out later that they are actually winter-hardy to the zone below us. Wasted money and a lesson learned for both of us.

    I've usually purchased from the local farm store greenhouse with great success. They tend to know about the plants and take care of their inventory, both to prevent loss and ensure that their customers are happy. Our local Iowa Bomg..r's store has grown into one of the largest selling nurseries in this area because of that. My neighbor and I have both ditched the big-box stores for our gardening needs.

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