Thinking Outside the “Big Box”
With 23 years of professional experience in the horticulture industry, one question I have heard many times is “Why are landscape plants at the ‘big box’ stores so often dramatically cheaper?”
‘Big box’ stores have become a major force in marketing and selling of landscape plants across the U.S., and have transformed the retail plant business over the last 15-20 years.
Large chains have the advantage of working with very large wholesale nurseries and bedding plant growers, which lowers their purchase price. They contract for entire seasons of crops, with thousands of plants. While the cost of buying from a ‘big box’ store may seem lower, the value may not be what you are hoping for.
There are several factors beyond price to consider when looking for plants: Service, availability, regional hardiness, and quality.
Local nurseries seek to grow ongoing relationships with their customers. Trained staff can give accurate horticultural information about the plants and local growing conditions. Local nurseries know about local conditions, USDA zones, brutal winters vs. muggy summers, and which plants are susceptible to pests and diseases. Often experienced gardeners themselves, they can steer you to the right plant for your project and space.
‘Big Box’ stores are often able to offer cheaper plants, but usually with reduced numbers of selections and fewer sizes of plant varieties available to choose from. If you are looking for natives, plants for xeric landscapes, or plants for pollinators, the ‘big box’ store is not the place to look. They rely on mass appeal, not special needs.
‘Big box’ stores buy from wholesale growers all over the country. The plants are often grown in a greenhouse environment, producing tender plants that are not adapted to any specific outdoor climate.
In contrast, local nurseries buy from local and regional growers, where plants are grown on-site and nearly always finished and sold outdoors. These plants will be better adapted to that local climate. I have often found plants in big box stores that are not suited to our climate and soil. I have found many plants benched as perennials, yet a check of the tag shows that they are only considered annuals in our plant hardiness zone, which is zone 5.
In-store care also influences how well plants survive in the garden. The continued care plants receive (or don’t) after delivery from a grower can greatly affect the quality of each plant and its viability. Many ‘big box’ stores may not adequately water, or properly locate the plants in the sun or the shade as each species requires.
Independent nurseries and garden centers water and feed their plants, and employees are trained to spot pests or disease, and carefully place the plants in ideal locations. The local nursery or garden center must sell a healthy plant or absorb the loss.
Often the plants in a ‘big box store are actually under the care of a merchandiser, who is paid when a plant sells and who builds a loss factor into the contract.
Big box stores know that plants bring people into their store, especially in the spring. They emphasize color and impulse purchases, and often use the garden centers as their “loss leaders.” They may bring plants from the south or northwest into Midwest centers, knowing that customers eager for spring will buy plants and often lose a few plants to frost, only to replant and try again.
Waiting an additional week or two, and buying Michigan plants will yield more flowers over a longer season, with less loss and disappointment.
Plants are complex organisms, and keeping them healthy requires knowledge, and becomes easier with experience. The Plant Professionals understands the pace of life for most people these days. A lot of people don’t have the patience, experience, or time to select and care for their landscape plantings, but want a beautiful, well designed and low maintenance landscape. We have the advantage of close relationships with Michigan growers, the knowledge of growing conditions in our area, and years of experience. We can design, install and maintain your garden, or offer just the help you need to secure healthy plants already acclimated to Michigan winters and soils.