Back in the days when I worked at the family nursery, big discount stores had a bad reputation when it came to plant quality. And rightly so. But things have changed, and you can find good plants at these places if you shop carefully -- and fast. One of the reasons for the improved quality is that many home centers now carry branded plants, such as Proven Winners, Blooms of Bressingham and Hines. These growers use top varieties and grow them under exacting conditions, so the quality is uniformly excellent. Home centers are the place to shop for large quantities of common annuals and perennials, as well as for small landscape plants. You can't beat the prices. My local Home Depot sells annuals for $1.84 for a six-pack, or $7.99 for a half-flat of 21 plants. That's 30 to 40 cents per plant. Perennials often go for $1.99 in a 4-in. pot. You can also find junipers and arborvitae in 1-gal. containers for as little as $4.99. These plants usually cost two to three times as much at nurseries. Still, plants don't get top-notch care at these places, according to landscape designer Ann Whitman. The author of Organic Gardening for Dummies (Hungry Minds, 2001), she spent some time in the trenches working in the nursery department for a large national home center. Here are her tips for plant shopping at home centers: Be there when the truck arrives.
This is the best way to get a good selection, and the only way you can be sure the plants are fresh, well watered and well tended. "There's a schedule in every store that notes when the trucks will arrive and what they will be carrying," Whitman says. "Ask an employee to check it for you." If deliveries are made when the store is closed, try to be the first in line when it opens. Shop during the week.
"It's like a zoo at home centers on the weekends," Whitman says. "On a typical spring weekend they will sell an entire tractor-trailer load of trees and shrubs." So shop on a Thursday or Friday or first thing Saturday morning. Be decisive. "If you see a plant you like, buy it right then because it won't be there the next time you go," she says. Don't buy leftovers.
On the flip side, if you see a plant that was there during your last visit, pass on it. Anything that has been sitting around or off in a corner is not worth buying. "They barely even water the plants," Whitman says. "Their philosophy is ?turn and burn.' It's cheaper to throw things out than to maintain them." Even though some home center nursery employees are schooled in horticulture, they just don't have time to do maintenance. Make a deal.
Whitman says there are bargains to be had at the end of the season. "They clear everything out before the Christmas trees come in, so ask them if they want to make a deal." She has heard stories of customers buying everything on the lot for $100. In short, it is difficult to fight the crowds at these stores and it might be hard to find someone to answer your questions, but you can't beat the prices.
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