Money back, replacement, or tough luck?



Did it survive, did it die, or is it yet to emerge? I don’t know about you, but every spring morning I make my tour of the front, side, and back: Ah, finally, the blooms-on-old-wood macrophylla is showing some green! Thank god, only one of the fancy heucheras I spent a fortune on died! What do you know, the ground cover the roofers buried under debris came back!

There are always some casualties. I dug up a bounteous Carefree Beauty rose bush (above, prior to the assassination) and planted it in a new spot late in the season and it didn’t make it. It was a bonehead move; I’m still kicking myself.

This is all standard angst-of-the-gardener stuff. In fact, I kind of want a few things to die to make room for new purchases. But sometimes, the losses are tougher to accept. Take my friend. We’ll call her C. She bought a young red maple, a smoke bush, and two other ornamental shrubs I don’t remember the name of from a local nursery last fall. Dead, dead, dead, and dead. This particular nursery does not guarantee its large plants; i.e., no money back, or even a replacement. Return policies varies from business to business. I think many of the landscape services around here will replace failed shrubs and such for a couple years, while a few garden centers also offer some sort of guarantee, often with stipulations.

There was a really long thread on Gardenweb about this; some nursery-owners spoke of “serial returners.” Others explained that they dealt with individual problems on a case-by-case basis. According to one of our local garden writers, plant consumers should not expect returns. She notes: I hope staff reminded you about watering, encouraged compost amendments, gave you planting information. But keeping them alive is then your job. Plants aren’t furniture.

Actually, I think my friend’s problem may have been fall planting. In spite of all the received wisdom to the contrary—everybody here says plant in the fall—I think fall planting can be tough in Buffalo. Most of the perennials I’ve lost were planted late in the season or in the fall. (And of course, we have the idiotic case of the fall-transplanted rose bush.)

It’s an interesting question. Should we expect money-back guarantees or replacements? I can see where strong cases can be made on both the consumer and vendor side. Just like my dead Carefree Beauty, it’s all thorns.

Previous articleEven war dare not come between a man and his turfgrass
Next articleThe bees are worth it
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Most of the nurseries around here have what I consider a reasonable policy of guaranteeing the plant for this growing season or for 2 months. It is a living thing, subject to the vagaries of nature, both weather, animal & microscopic (disease). If there is something wrong with the plant at the time of purchase, it usually will become evident within a couple of weeks. Beyond that, it is out of the sellers’ control & should therefore be beyond their responsibility.

  2. I am glad I am not the only one that makes regular scans of my emerging garden – it’s one of the delights ( and sometimes despair!) of spring. I think that if you get plants that look reasonalbly healthy and they don’t thrive – you chose the wrong plant for the wrong place, or did something else wrong.

  3. The best deal I got last fall was an additional 30% off two trees I bought if I would waive the one year guarantee. Sold! Was their willingness to take that much off an indication of how much nurseries and garden centers mark up plants to cover the cost of the guarantee? If so, I’ll always ask for a percentage off to release them from any guarantee, as long as I think the plants are healthy when I buy them.

  4. Elizabeth, I so agree with you about fall planting! One of the classic pieces of bad advice for northern gardeners.

    I find that if I plant in fall, the roots don’t establish themselves sufficiently to prevent the plant being heaved by frost!

    Of course, planting in mid-summer is a crapshoot, too. The tree peony I planted last July could not survive last summer’s drought, despite the numerous tea-kettles of water I dumped over it.

    So that basically leaves May and June for northern gardeners. But I’m too busy with my vegetable garden in May and June to think about ornamentals.

  5. We want you as a long term customer. If you want a replacement we will give you one. If you are a pain in the neck time and time again we don’t want you as a customer. We will ask you to not return!

    In 25 years of garden center work that’s only happened a couple of times. Usually a result of shoplifting, being abusive of the employees, or in a rare case that I can remember a person who returned almost everything they ever bought.

    Returns happen so infrequently here that when it does happen we are more than happy to make the exchange or refund. After all whats more important, replacing the plant or replacing that customer.

    Carol, I don’t know why that nursery gave you 30% off to waive the guarantee. I can assure you we do nor mark up our plants to cover the cost of the guarantee. We mark up our plants to stay in business!

  6. Trey… it might be a bad assumption on my part to assume that the nursery is marking up plants a little more to cover the cost of returned plants. This particular nursery did have a one year guarantee on all plants, whereas it sounds like you don’t really have a guarantee other than you guarantee you will take good care of good customers. I’d like that better any day. When does your Indiana branch open?

    But they did readily offer the 30% off…

  7. I move a lot of perennials in the fall – and survival rates are usually almost as good as spring. BUT the perenials are moved in September – no later. Any later than that and death rates skyrocket. This doesn’t count for such hard-as-nails plants as hosta, hemerocallis and iris among a select group you can’t kill with an axe. Those can be dug/planted anytime the ground isn’t frozen and they’ll survive.

    This also applies to newly purchased perennials but the problem there is that if you put them into a fertile soil directly from a pot (where they might be experiencing a lack of fertilizer at the end of the seaon) they very well might kick into top growth rather than root growth. This produces “soft” crowns that may or may not harden off with an early planting but will definitely not harden off with later plantings.

    Bottom line – no later than September in Buffalo unless the plant is rock-hardy.

  8. I’ll be the dissenter here. I LOVE to fall plant, be it perennials or shrubs. I lost a couple of fall-planted shrubs this year, but it had more to do with the fact that they were horribly root-bound in the pot. Without the one-year guarantee, I wouldn’t have taken the gamble on them. (The other three plants of the same type/kind were fine.)

    Maybe heeling them in is a better bet for “late fall planting” in northern areas, though? I got a bunch of perennials for free in December from the garden center where I work. The gallon pots were completely frozen solid–they sounded like ice chunks as I tossed them in my car–but I sunk the pots and all in the ground and every single one of them came up this spring just fine.

  9. Kim, burying entire plants–or, worse, entire climbing roses, as is often recommended–for winter protection always seemed like a big pain to me, but I guess if I was used to doing it …

  10. Personally I’ve never taken a plant back. It seems to me that if a plant dies it is something the gardener did wrong (usually). For example, my in-laws bought a Yoshino Cherry about three years ago. It wasn’t properly staked and when it was blown down in a storm it didn’t get put back up immediately. The tree didn’t make it. That obviously wasn’t the fault of the nursery but since there was a guarantee the nursery could have had to replace the tree. A guarantee is a very generous offer but not necessary. There are just too many things a gardener can do wrong to kill a plant to expect a guarantee at the nursery.

  11. I’m mostly on the no-refunds side, but there are exceptions. Locally, our nurseries guarantee their woody plants for a full year IF you have them plant them (for a fee, of course). I think that’s reasonably fair. If nursery personnel don’t know how to plant something properly, then how can they expect a customer to do it right either? One of my friends lives in an area with a very high water table, and since she trusted the nursery to select an appropriate tree for the conditions and plant it, I think she is quite justified in holding the nursery to their guarantee when the tree inevitably dies. The nursery should have recommended and planted either aspen, willow or river birch, and none of those were suggestions during the first two replacements.

    I’ve had some nurseries offer me replacements when I mention that I lost a plant or several over the winter, but I’ve always refused the offer. Why? Because I appreciate the offer, but I’m the crazy woman who just had to try something that wasn’t hardy or in a difficult spot.

    I also explain that–most recently the owner of a Japanese Maple nursery was ready to make some sort of offer to replace two maples that had died on me. I refused, explaining that we’d had a record cold, record dry winter and that I’d lost established plants as well as new purchases. I don’t think that nurseries can be responsible for extreme weather.

    I’ve learned that I can’t reliably plant roses in Fall here–at least not the more tender China, Tea and Hybrid Tea varieties, nor can I do well with anything rated Zone 7 or warmer during Fall planting. However, Hostas do better for me when planted in Fall, and shrubs hardy to Zone 6 do just fine. (I’m in Zone 7a)

    I know that I’m taking a huge gamble with most end-of-season sales, but I live in a gambling town after all (Sparks, Nevada). I weigh the risks against the costs, and spring for things when I think there’s a good chance of success.

    All of my requests for replacement to date have been for clearly non-viable plant material from mail-order sources, and even those requests have been quite rare. I haven’t had any trouble getting replacements for the occasional plant that simply failed to rally or break dormancy. I don’t make the request until I’ve thoroughly inspected the plant and done my level best to coax it along.

  12. My favorite nursery replaces dead plants up to a year later and I’ve always thought they’re being too generous. People definitely take advantage of it, but I cringe at the thought because the nursery came awfully close to bankruptcy lately and I fear for its continued existence.

  13. Inexpensive annuals? No replacement.

    Costly perennials that I know I have handled carefully? Yes, either replace it or let me buy a replacement at half price.

    I don’t want them to go out of business but we are in a partnership of sorts.


  14. I see the numbers on returns at many garden centers and have found that in most cases for garden centers that offer a one-year guarantee returns are in the range of 1-3% per year. In some years of exceptionally bad weather (drought, rain, freeze, etc.) returns get as high as 5-7% but I have never seen it higher. Our clients do not mark up specifically to cover the cost of returns but it does become a part of their cost of goods and indirectly contributes to higher prices. Most garden centers take the correct attitude that a return is an opportunity to keep a customer and bring them back in the future. I was just yesterday mystery shopping for a client at a Portland, Oregon garden center and witnessed an attempted return where the customer who purchased a plant on April 11, 2007 was told by the garden center employee that she routinely will “stretch” a week or two either way (?) buuuutttt…. and inferred she wasn’t going to “this time”. She asked the customer if she’d like to purchase a replacement plant and the customer told her, “Not from (this place)! Customer lost and out there telling a lot of people that she wasn’t worth five more days of stretching the policy there. There’s more to the story but in my opinion the return should have been honored in this case. Saving money on these types of returns is not saving money at all.

  15. Unfortunately for the plant guarantee issue, there is more in the equation than “planting it right.” There is planting it in the right location, watering it right, protecting it from critters… My husband often jokes that he’ll guarantee any plant a customer buys– as long as he leaves it at the garden center so we can take care of it properly. Once it leaves us, we have no control over the care it receives.

    We have a 90 day 100% guarantee, and a lifetime 20% guarantee. We feel that if the plant was less than healthy when the customer purchased it, that will cause it to die right away, and the 100% guarantee appropriately kicks in. If it dies later than that, we share responsibility with the customer (maybe we didn’t give the customer clear enough information on how to plant it or care for it) and we share the cost of replacement. We have a few exceptions of plants we do not guarantee at all, but for the most part this seems to work for us. We don’t lose our shirts on replacement costs and our customers know we stand behind the health of the plants that they buy.

  16. The only time I’ve asked for (and received) a replacement was when I brought home an ornamental grass from a trusted nursery and discovered that the root ball was full of fire ants. Not only that, the plant turned out to be mislabeled, which I discovered after treating for the fire ants and waiting a couple of weeks for the bloom. The nursery was apologetic and gave me a credit for the price of the plant, which I used to buy the grass I’d wanted in the first place.

  17. What should we expect from Garden Centers.. I just came back from our local big one here in San Francisco, and the staff there did not know what Milkweed is, and this month they are featuring butterfly gardens. Where do you go for good knowledge and service?

Comments are closed.