Does Garden Rant Hate The Horticulture Industry?



Some of our recent commenters have suggested that Garden Rant is super-hostile to the nursery business.  So do we hate plant purveyors?  Only in the way that Tatum O’Neal undoubtedly hated her dealer.

The idea is ridiculous.  I spend ALL of my disposable income on gardening.  No joke.  I haven’t worn anything but jeans since 1998.  And while I’m super-interested in decor, I generally balk at the price-tag.  But when it comes to plants, somehow there is no budget.  And I suspect the same is true for my partners.

We are also constantly praising great plant purveyors on this site.  In my case, it’s Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, Fedco Seeds, The Antique Rose Emporium, Clearbrook Farm in Shaftsbury, VT, and Slate Hill Farm Daylilies in Salem, NY.  On Friday, I’ll post about one of my favorite destinations in the world, Rohsler’s Allendale Nursery in the highly landscaped–but not really gardened–New Jersey suburbs.

But some things just deserve to be scorned.  Take a look at the photo above.  Yes, those are shade-loving perennials wilting to a crisp yesterday in the blazing sun at Hewitt’s Garden Center, a local chain. 

So here are three things I do hate:

  1. Plant abuse in a business where the customers are presumably plant lovers.
  2. Entering a nursery building where I don’t smell flowers, I don’t smell soil, I smell chemicals.
  3. Being offered nothing new or interesting. I love the great stalwarts of the garden, but ideally, I’d like to think I’m buying from people who know more about their subject than I do and can introduce me to something new.


  1. Love Gardenrant, work at a nursery, have to say this:

    1. Yes that picture is a mess. It wouldnt be too hard to fix that, but does add to the cost of the plants (people to water, shade structure)
    2. Chemical smell stinks, I do not sell em’
    3. New and intersting plants, hmm… seems as if I remember a post about a paticular Jack Frost Brunnera being o so expensive, oh and a post about expensive annuals. Seems to me if you want that kind of stuff your going to have to quit gasping and clutching your heart about the price. Matter of fact I had a lady in this morning complaining about the prices, buys one item and then gets into her new Volvo station wagon. I drive a crappy 20 year old pickup truck. Gimme a break. Nursery people are not getting rich off you folks, (although the president of Proven Winners might be) The smart nurseries take care of their plants, and then charge more for them than their crappy competitor in order to stay aloat as a viable business for the future.

  2. I worked in a green house part time (one of three jobs I had at the time) and loved it. But at no point did I see anyone getting rich. Obviously I wasn’t or I would have been able to quit the other two jobs. What never ceased to amaze me was the amount of people, usually driving expensive cars, that outright stole plants. And not just a small pot. I had one guy drive away with $98 worth of plants. We even had code words for the regular theives that we alerted employees to on our radios, one of which was a rich doctor’s wife. Combine that with weather problems, germination failure and other pitfalls of doing business, and it was a wonder the the greenhouse made any money at all. It was in an obscure place as well. What grew the business however, was the hands on knowledge of the employees who worked there seasonally. It was a point of pride to be able to answer most of the questions we got. We gained a reputation for it and therefore the loyalty of the true gardeners in a wide radius. To this day I miss that job.

  3. Hello Michele,
    I’d like to add to your list of unpleasant things that can happen at a retail garden center : Have the sales person offer a customer a discount and then later receive a letter saying
    you are not worthly to receive the discount..
    How’s that for being the ultimate flip flop ?
    I wrote about my filp flopping experience at Armstrong Garden Nursery in Novato Ca.

    I don’t spend a lot of money at retail nurseries in comparison to what I spend at wholesale nurseries , but I certainly make nursery referrals to my friends, clients and others.
    The Armstrong Nursery chain is one that I would not recommend.

    Michelle D.

  4. I’d just like to make the point that offering soemthing new and exciting in a nursery doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune on patented hybrid cultivars – gunnera manicata and phyllostachys nigra have been around for decades but gardeners went crazy for them in the UK when garden centres started propagating them and selling them. The next megaperennial may have been discovered by a plant hunter 100 years ago but a bit of plantcraft could uncover it.

  5. The horticulture industry is huge. You can hate one part of it while loving another. It’s like saying you hate the restaurant industry. There are poorly run small independent nurseries, and well run branches of Home Depot. Our industry, like most is going through the changes associated with the new realities of doing business these days.

    Like most small garden center owners I have a laundry list of complaints. So what? There is no time to complain. The fact is the customer is in the driver seat. Please them and they will return time and again, as well as telling their friends. Make them mad and they will stop shopping with you, start a blog, and let everyone else know how you made them feel.

    I love being in the garden center business. That doesn’t mean I love the garden industry. Some parts are great and some not. The part that I love the most is interacting with my customers, whether its in person or on the internet. The places who look at the customer as an intrusion to their busy day will soon be gone.

  6. I just zoomed in on that picture above. Everyone keeps telling me how expensive it is in California? Those plants in the picture are $6.99 or 6 for $35? Geez, here it’s 3.99 or 10 for $36.00, for QUALITY 4″ sized perennials.

  7. Michelle, that garden center is unbelievably foolish!

    MJ, we’re allowed to experience sticker shock in a season when plants appear to cost 50% more than they did last year. We understand why it’s happening–but it’s still shocking.

    I will pay almost anything for a good-looking shrub. But I do have trouble with $18.99 for a perennial, given how many I kill.

  8. I have noticed that the big local nurseries are carrying mostly quite standard, common items this year, perhaps not wanting to end up with unsold stock of Brunnera “Jack Frost” or some other more expensive perennial. I can’t even find any verbascum. I am really like a junkie in any nursery, and envy all you nursery workers and owners! I am sure I would be one of your favorite customers if I were near any of you. I saw an “impressionist” iris yesterday and just stood in awe gazing at it before handing over the bucks for it. (And I guess it’s quite a common iris but I hadn’t seen it before.)But now I’m done until the end of summer sales.(I did discover a wonderful new nursery where I FINALLY found the “Jack Frost” I’ve been all over town looking for — I had one and had to have more when I saw those blue flowers this spring — and I only paid $9.99 for a decent sized plant. Well, of course, I had to have three. And I have to remember to cover them if we don’t have snow, I was told.)

  9. Great post and good comments, too. Like Michelle, I will pay for shrubs and trees, but $18.99 for a perennial is too dear. My favorite sorta-local family run garden center was bending my ear about Proven Winners – what a racket! But they advertise and people ask for them. Their system makes it hard for smaller family-run operations to make any money. This year, I tried some recommended plants that came with hand lettered wooden tags – LOVE that. One is a lovely cuphea and the others lost their tags, but I love them all the same. They don’t need a PW tag to be pretty. And my absolutely favorite new plant this year? A rose campion given by my postal carrier – we’re trading plants. THAT helps keep costs down. Two more things – thanks for the plug a bit ago for Brent and Becky’s – just got an order from them. Also, I was leery of Dutch Gardens, but my sale items are performing beautifully, including those three Jack Frost brunnera I bought for about half price (cue blushing smilie). They’ve doubled in size in about 3 weeks, so I think they’re happy, and that makes me happy.

  10. I did wonder the first time I saw perennials which cost the same as a rose bush or a shrub, hellebores being one that immediately springs to mind, but I assume that it may well take just as long and maybe more trouble to propagate some perennials as it does to propagate and grow bushes. Sure we all like a bargain but the point is well made about the increasing costs of growers and retailers, so if I want a plant badly enough I pay for it, knowing that I am probably getting very good value. It’s a bit like agricultural produce, we are all so used to getting veggies and fruit for extremely low prices that we forget the very poorly paid often immigrant workers who grow and tend and harvest these things. To my mind everyone deserves a FAIR return for their produce, not just the big corporations.
    As to rich people being thieves – as a curator friend said, “The night to watch carefully that nice little Picasso print on the wall is the special preview night for rich patrons and potential patrons.”

  11. There’s much more than meets the eye in a retail garden center. I can think of lots of reasons why those shade loving plants might be sitting in the sun. Some examples: maybe the teenage kid with no horiticultural experience but lotsa muscle put them there. His more knowledgeable colleagues might have been helping the customer who’s looking for a deer resistant shrub for dry shade that flowers year round and requires no maintenance. And did I mention that she hates purple?
    The plant loving employee knows the shade plants are unhappy, but in addition to the dry shade customer, the phone’s ringing off the hook, the bedding plants are wilting, three trucks need unloading in receiving (one with those lovely, unusual plants we all lust after), customers are lined up at the cash register and someone has brought in samples of insect damage on several shrubs and trees in their yard. The owner refuses to hire more help cos costs are rising all the time and profits are dwindling. Oh, and an employee just quit yesterday cos they found an easier job, paying alot more money. Believe me, most folks working in garden centers are passionate plant lovers. We want to take care of our charges, but during the hyper-crazyness of spring, there is little time because we’re working our asses off keeping our customers happy while struggling to keep the plants watered and the nursery fully stocked. I often wish our nursery was closed one day a week, so we could catch up on some of the behind the scenes work without interruption. Everyone, including the plants, would be happier. I know of nurseries who operate that way and it makes sense. And about the new and interesting. Running a nursery selling only the new and different is a horticulturalist’s dream. Unfortunately, it’s all those impatiens and common hedge plants going out the door that are keeping the place in business. There’s just not enough of the fun stuff leaving in customer’s cars to justify stocking the average garden center with only the rare and unusual. But most adventurous buyers will try to keep some fun stuff on hand even if it’s not the majority of what’s on the sales floor.

  12. (I’ll warn you…this is long)

    I’m right there with ya wooly sunflower. I’m a horticulturist with two degrees in the subject and am currently the GM of an independent single location garden center in Dallas, Tx. North Haven Gardens. I’m a proud member of the horticulture industry; having worked in plant research, variety trials, non-profit gardens and retail. I know many facets of the industry well. It’s my passion and there are a lot of great people in it. Quite frankly, every person on this blog and visitor on this blog is a part of that industry as well, all in their own way. There are things to criticize about every industry. I mean, don’t get me started on Monsanto. Really. But I can think of much worse industries to be a part of. I’m happy where I am.

    The garden center I run has been in business and in the same location since 1951. As much as we have a long-standing reputation for quality plants, unique and hard to find specimens and a high level of customer service, we too struggle every day with what you describe. Our business in this climate is a year-round business, but March, April and May can nearly make you feel you’ve just got nothing left to give. I go on vacation this coming Saturday and it’s not a moment too soon. Drained is the word. It’s a whirlwind. And it is those months that literally make or break a garden center business every year. We are a solid profitable business, but in my budget we are always programmed to lose money for many months of the year, counting on those spring months to make it up. That’s just the way this business goes. There are a select few who’ve become wealthy in the industry…but most earn a modest income and do it because they love it.

    We hire horticulturists, with degrees, with certifications, experienced gardeners, etc. And let me tell you that in March, April and May, you can never find enough extra of those folks to staff your nursery. You’re working at such a pace that even in our garden center, it’s not uncommon to find a plant stocked in the wrong place. The support staff does everything they can to get the fresh plants out on to the sales floor as quickly as they can…but that doesn’t always mean they know exactly where to put it. It doesn’t matter how many signs you put out (we know that customers usually don’t read most of them) same goes for staff. The more experienced staff has to make sure the plants get restocked where they should go – in the midst of trying to hand hold, diagnose plant problems, get the phones, back up on registers, keep plants watered…you name it. Spring is long hard work and it’s also the time the general public/customers are the toughest on you. We do our best and we work hard at it. I have super high standards and expectations, but no matter that, it’s never perfect.

    In terms of prices, we pay very close attention to prices, charging what we need to cover our overhead, support quality staff year-round and make a set reasonable profit on the material – so we can buy more. We don’t over charge. Patented plant material costs us more; therefore it will cost you more. It takes a lot of work to get those plants to the garden center. I don’t think most people have an appreciation for that cost. And let me tell you folks, those costs have gone up exponentially in the last year due to freight increases and increased costs for fertilizers – and any organic product made with corn. But I’ve not raised my prices across the board to match. I’m trying to absorb what I can up until I have no choice but the raise the price. The perception of value on horticultural materials is low and not in line with the actual value of the products and services. Which is a shame. Just as organic produce is worth the cost for many reasons, so are great plant varieties and garden centers.

    The more we all support our local garden centers year-round, not just in spring when the geraniums are pretty, the better product and services you’ll get from them. When we are profitable, we put that money back into staff first, then improve our nursery facilities and freshen our stock for our customers. It’s a win/win for all. We love what we do and we love our customers.

  13. Here’s what I hate about the horticulture industry: pot-bound plants. I just bought a Clematis that was so root-bound there was hardly any soil. I can’t blame the independent nursery from which I bought it because there is no way that plant could have gotten that way in the time that it was at the nursery (it could only have been there a couple of weeks). I have to think these things are coming from the growers like this. And it’s not just one nursery. It seems like most of the things I buy end up being pot-bound. Doesn’t anybody repot anything?

  14. One of the benefits of being a maintenenace gardener is it eliminates a huge portion of my need to acquire plants from a nursery to feed my own plant obsession. Mostly I spend other people’s money at nurseries. A knack for propagation and access to a wide plant palette in client’s gardens, plus a little patience further reduces my need to spend my own money in a nursery. I have to see yet how that is going to work in my new climate zone. The handwriting seems to be on the wall, I am gonna need me a small greenhouse.

    I am the shopper who buys one of a coveted, unusual plant for myself. Then I make more of them. Still I am the best customer a nursery business could hope for. I don’t have 10 million questions for a $9.95 purchase or a $1,000 dollar one and over the course of a year I could be spending thousands of dollars of other people’s money.

    I must say I have been shocked at the feeding frenzy I have seen in the nurseries here in NC this spring. In twenty years in Hawaii I never saw anything remotely like it. God bless the nursery workers who have to deal with that.

    So Michele, you swear that you, Susan, Elizabeth and Amy are not all haters of the horticulture industry? Ya’ll really had me confused!

  15. nah, this isn’t hatred. this is free marketing advice. it’s easy for industries to blame their customers for driving bad practices. everyone does shop in march-may and that’s not in the best interest of the merchandise or the industry or the customer. thanks for ranting out a good conversation! honest feedback is too rare these days.

  16. Thes four hoen worms do hate the industry. Most of there posts are aimed at starting a controversy. That is all that drives any media today. Conflict and scandals. There is nothing informative at all in this blog form the these know it alls. Their approach is holier than thou, sarcastic. They are just a bunch of monday morning quarterback trouble makers.

  17. I am a professional horticulturist
    in the industry for thirty plus years. My grandfather was President Roosevelts’ private gardener. It runs in my blood to the core of my soul. If my posts are stirring up troble it is as a rebuttal to the constant attck on the taste and style of gardeners both professional and amateur. Read between the lines of these ladies posts and you will see the shoot from the hip sensationalist nature they perform from.
    They love ramshackle bug filled gardens. A real gardener would tolerate the ramshackle but not put up with an overabundance of bugs eating the expensive plants they hate to pay for.
    So my rant is a response to the short sighted rants posted by these ladies.
    So take it for what you perceive it to be. I like a garden forum where people share ideas and not one to be lectured with opinions from a soap box and talked down to. My posts offer a critique and a solution to the posts of theirs I disagree with. I am defending the industry for which they know little about

    For example they love the nursery in Bergen County NJ because of it’s unique specimen shrubs but God forbis you plant too many in your yard. Then you become fodder for the holier than thou. Exactly how many specimens is too many?

  18. I have been involved with landscaping, growing / production, retail garden centers, wholesale plant sales and marketing since 1965. I have worked in the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and the Tropics.
    To address Michele’s post, 1) most garden centers that survive in ANY business climate treat and display their plant offerings appropriately. They must. The losses are too great in they do not. Eventually, the business fails due to poor revenues or competition that causes lost revenue. Shade plants should be displayed in a shady situation.
    2) Despite the ridiculous hype about “green” products and practices, chemicals are still a valuable part of a gardener’s and homeowner’s tool box. Socialist Canada has once again taken things too far. Where do you suggest that stores display their chemicals? Scattered about or concentrated in one area? BTW, I use only Roundup, Horticultural Oil, Copper Sulfate, and some Palm Special fertilizer. My lawn (St. Augustine grass) doesn’t look quite like the neighbors’ do, but there is no atrazine running into our lake from my property.
    3) Independent Garden centers must try harder to compete with the big box stores. They will need fresh design ideas, fresh displays, and as many affordable new introductions as they can offer. Knowledgeable sales staff and good signage are important and help to introduce customers to new plants and products and new ways to use existing ones. Unfortunately, people cost money and more knowledgeable people cost more money. This, however, sets independents apart from the box stores.
    As for some wealthy customers being the cheapest, I concur. I have many first hand accounts that I could share. I can also tell you that I have had some wealthy customers that cared nothing about price but a great deal about quality and the resulting look of their landscape!
    To the pot bound plant critic: Plants are dynamic. They are living, breathing, GROWING entities the actually CHANGE SIZE over time. The retailer and grower may use plant growth regulators to slow a plant down and make it more compact and use less water. These PGR’s cost money. Another solution is to re-pot the plants. This also costs money and increase the cost to you, the consumer. My suggestion is examining the plant at the nursery and determining if it is in good health upon purchase and not so pot bound that it will likely die. Rarely do pot bound plants die after correctly planting them, although they may not take off immediately. So, Goldilocks, if you want your plants just right, you may have to constantly search for them so you and the object of your desire will meet at exactly the correct time in space.
    PS. I hate the alternative comment, as well. These plants are too young, have no flowers, etc…

  19. In re to the comment about root bound plants. I own a very small garden shop; more of a garden boutique, (and am still sitting on some gorgeous Jack Frost brunnera if anyone’s interested). My favorite grower does exactly what Jack described above. When the plants gets to a certain size they are repotted, then removed from the availability list for several weeks until they fill the larger pots with good root systems. They don’t want anyone complaining when they tip a plant out and get a quart sized plant in a gallon pot. This means I sometimes can’t get the plants when I really need them and when I do finally get them I have to pay a higher price for the larger size. A plant that moves from a quart to a gallon raises the price 2-3 dollars each. Moving from one gallon to 2 or 3 gallon often doubles and may more than double the price. Just FYI – buy the well cared for root bound plants and save some money.

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