How Garden Centers Lead Us Astray

Bradford Pear looks kind of pretty in early spring, but do not be fooled! It is a very silly and worthless tree.

Occasionally, some friend will call me to ask whether she should buy a certain plant she’s just found on sale at Home Depot or Lowe’s. She’s confused about whether the plant is an annual or a perennial, or isn’t sure whether it’s a good choice for her yard in the first place…and the store certainly isn’t providing many clues.

Although big box garden centers can sometimes be great for finding good deals on the occasional desirable plant, I’ve found that they are not particularly user-friendly unless you have a baseline of knowledge. Ninety percent of the time, the employees don’t know much about the plants therein, and the retailers, I find, make bewildering, often bizarre choices about what plants to sell, when to sell them, and how to organize them in the store.

I wandered into a Lowe’s about a week ago and found approximately nothing worth buying there. In early April, everyone’s excited about spring-blooming trees, so the Lowe’s parking lot is, of course, full of them.

Carolina Silverbell and ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud dueling it out

Unfortunately, more than half of the tree stock that day consisted of Bradford Pairs, a tree whose ubiquity in the Nashville landscape utterly mystifies me and drives most gardeners mad. Granted, it’s lovely for a few weeks in the very early spring. But dogwoods and redbuds are even lovelier, and what’s more, they are native to the area and faaaar better choices in the long haul because they don’t tend to split and break so easily.

I get it: garden centers are in the business of selling, not educating. But people buy what’s available. I’d love to see more ‘Forest Pansy’ redbuds in garden centers (You can occasionally find them, but usually my mom buys them all before you get there), and I think redbuds and dogwoods should outnumber or even replace Bradford Pairs, at once. And why is a magnificent specimen blooming tree like the Carolina Silverbell virtually unavailable?

The next problem is timing: a lot of garden centers put out plants when people first get excited about digging in the yard, with little thought about when gardeners actually should plant them. (See this pointed rant on the latter point by Paul James, the “Garden Guy.”) This year I fell into this trap myself. We’ve had such a wonderful, warm, early spring that I let myself buy and plant basil about three weeks before I should have, then wound up having to cover the plants every time the night lows dipped into the 30s and 40s. A basic rule in our area is: plant annuals after tax day, when the threat of frost has passed. And tender, warm-weather annuals like basil and tomatoes should go in even later than that.

Click to enlarge image

Just watching what friends of mine put in their carts sometimes, it’s clear the organization itself at garden centers can be confusing. Part-shade annuals on display in the full sun of a parking lot, mixed-annual containers for sale loaded with a bizarre combination of shade- and sun-lovers, and no absolute division between areas for annuals and perennials can make shopping a bewildering experience. Sometimes, you just have to know what you’re looking for. But often, the plant sales tag can be helpful.

The one to the left, for a ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, is a good example. First, notice the “cold hardiness” information. When you choose a plant, it’s not enough to figure out whether it’s an annual or a perennial (although this is a tree, so pretty obvious…). The real question is: is it a hardy perennial here, in Zone 6?

The tag says the redbud is cold hardy to negative ten, so it’s a safe bet. But if you find a tag that says cold hardy to +5 to +10 degrees, beware. It may not make it through a winter like the one we just had.

The other useful information you’ll find on this tag is size, growth rate, and light and water requirements. This info will help you decide whether your yard is right for this plant and, if so, where to place it. (i.e. this says 30 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide, so don’t put it two feet from your house).

Following the guidelines about whether your plant needs sun, part-sun, part-shade, or shade will go a long way towards ensuring the little guy’s success (although I don’t entirely agree with this tag – I’d say sun to part-sun). And if you’ve got a spot that gets a big blast of sun all day, where the soil tends to be desert-dry, choose something (like any kind of sedum) that requires very low water usage.

The takeaway message: don’t let garden centers decide for you what belongs in your garden. Grab a garden magazine, do some reading, and choose for yourself, armed with a little knowledge. In about three years, when your neighbor’s Bradford Pair splits down the middle and falls on his car, you can pat your neighbor on the shoulder, and say, “There, there,” all the while smugly regarding your lushly-blooming redbud tree and its stronger constitution.

Ask your local garden center to stock Carolina Silverbells right now!

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5 thoughts on “How Garden Centers Lead Us Astray

  1. I am no gardener, but I’ve recently learned from experience “How Garden Centers Lead Us Astray”. Two lovely pygmy date palms from dozens that a local home and garden center sold to homeowners around Hilton Head, SC last spring did not survive this past harsh winter. Our lawn-care person did no better. He gladly delivered and planted them (for a fee), then commented on their unsuitability after they died. To give the garden center its due–it refunded our money because the trees were guaranteed for a year. But the experience was disappointing.

    I perked up when you mentioned dogwoods as replacements for Bradford Pears. We had several dogwoods, pink and white, in our front and back yards in Tuscaloosa, AL. I admired them because they were beautiful all year round–blossoms in spring, colorful foliage in autumn, and silvery branches in winter.

  2. I myself do not classify Lowes, Home Depot, or Walmart as a garden center. I would classify them as a Big Box Store, which is why they don’t know how to display plants, and can’t tell you much about them. A true garden Center employees people who “knows” plants. Lowes, Home Depot, and Walmart do not employee nurserymen, or florists and most of the time the employees could care less about plants or you. They have “agreements” with growers that the grower will maintain “fresh” plants and that they only pay for them when and if they sell. So they are not concerned with the condition of the plants because they don’t have any responsibility for the plants. Thus they don’t have to hire someone who “knows” plants because if they die so what!! It’s just a commodity. If more of us would support our local nurseries and “true” garden centers then the big boxes would either quit selling plants or adopt better practices and know what they are selling and how to use them. – Michael

    • Good points, Michael! I certainly agree that local garden centers are superior to big boxes, and I prefer them.

  3. Love everything about this post. Lee and I speak of bradford pears all the time and wonder…why not a dogwood?

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