Gardens, House and Home

Real Gardeners Don’t Dig Cheap Dirt: Saving the Garden Center

Everybody wants a bargain. My gardening friends tell their gardening friends where they found the best price on vegetable and flower seeds. Social media gardeners discuss the cheapest place to buy everything from strawberry plants to decorative clay pots. Before the season of gardening frenzy goes into full swing, I’d like to wave a red flag and raise an important point about the way America shops for garden products.

All of my friends know that I am a thrift shopper. It’s never been about money although I like the thrill of finding a deal as much as the next guy. “Thrifting” is an environmentally sound practice that reduces the need for new products to be manufactured and eventually dumped into landfills.

But we can’t thrift everything. Gardening products is one area in which most of what we purchase has been newly produced. Of course, if we wait a few weeks past peak planting season we can buy leftover annuals and perennials off the clearance racks with hopes that they’ll recover in a few weeks or overwinter and return beautifully next year. In general though, gardening supplies are not thrift purchases and maybe it’s better that way.

A bag of off-brand potting soil might work just fine to grow the packets of cheap seeds that can be found at the Dollar Store. Big box stores load in-house garden areas with everything else the average gardener needs at a price lower than the full-service garden center. But therein lies the real and bigger question –

“Do you want to be an ‘average’ gardener?”

I do not. I love gardening and I aspire to be something more than ‘average’ in my garden. That is why I don’t seek out bargain supplies. It isn’t that I feel those products are inferior. In many cases, they are identical to the more expensive purchase that can be made at my favorite garden center. You may think I am crazy for not picking up the bargain. If it’s the same thing, why wouldn’t I save a few bucks? The reason is because the money I save buying something at a discount, is likely to come back to haunt me in the future.  I do not own a garden center, nor do I have any financial stake in one. But I have already lost two of my favorite local garden centers where I did my garden shopping.  I do not want to lose another. As a gardener who aspires to be better than “avrage” I need those businesses to survive and thrive not only because of the expert advice they offer, but, equally important, are the plants they grow.

Go to any big box or discount retailer with a garden section and you will find table after table of “Knock Out” roses, “Stella D’Oro” daylilies, and 3 or 4 tomato plant varieties. You will find flats of shade loving begonias and impatiens, spicy scented marigolds, and petunias in red, purple, and magenta pink. They may sell Gala apple trees or flats of vinca and pachysandra groundcovers. Go to the big box/discount store in the next town and you will find the same or a similar selection. That is exactly the kind of consistency that the beginning or average gardener may appreciate – easy to grow plants intended to give them the greatest chance of achieving gardening success at a low price. It also gives you a garden that looks like every other garden in your neighborhood. But for the experienced gardener or the young gardener that aspires to make something more of his plot of land, these all-in-one shopping stops that sell the same predictable plants each year, offer little to inspire us and are not the places we should be supporting.

You can buy the Gala apple tree anywhere. But what if you want a Northern Spy or a Wolf River? Every garden center offers a Knockout Rose but what if your garden dreams include the oldest, most fragrant, historic roses written about by Shakespeare? If you want an early American “Franklinia” or a “Fringe” Tree like the one you saw growing at George Washington’s Mount Vernon during your last vacation, you will need to shop a local grower or mail order garden center. It is these nurseries, filled with experts who specialize in growing the wider variety and the unique plants we want to put in our yards and gardens, who need our support in order to compete with the multitude of discount sellers.

Rhododendron hybrida ‘Girard’s Yellow Pom Pom Azalea’

All things in moderation….

While I will always pick up those end-of-season garden center bargains that expand my garden beds, I will not be shopping the cheap seed rack at the discount dollar stores or buying bags of off-brand supplies from a close-out bin. Instead, I will think about the kind of garden I want to grow as I pass by those deals.

Operating a nursery that grows the kind of plants I want to buy costs more for the grower to grow. Gardeners need to support those favorite local and mail order growers and garden centers with purchases that might cost us a bit more too. As Granny used to say, “Suck it up, Buttercup!” In the long run, if an extra five or ten bucks throughout the season will keep my favorite places thriving and available for future purchases, I will consider it money well spent.


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