Please sir, can I buy … more?



A few days ago, I received the following email: “We are ramping up for our spring season at Urban Roots and we want to do some customer surveys to find out what we need to do to capture more of each gardener’s annual budget (who is still shopping at other places and what can we do differently to get them to spend more of those dollars at UR?). Can you think of any current UR customers who spend quite a bit on their gardens each year, but are still finding it necessary to also shop at other locations?”

And here is my answer: “Maniacal gardeners like me shop at all the local nurseries plus maybe 4-5 mail order places. It has nothing to do with logic or actual needs.”

Yeah, but sometimes I wonder. Urban Roots is a co-op gardening center, the only one in Western New York and one of only two garden centers within the actual city limits of Buffalo. If I were to shop there exclusively (and I am a founding member), I would be supporting a great local business, one that is starting its own greenhouse, and whose purchasing and merchandising follows organic, sustainable guidelines. Yet, here I am, stopping off regularly at Home Depot to see if anything good and cheap just came in, not to mention regular trips to pricey suburban nurseries, and definitely not to mention my current $300-plus mail order tab.

How many more plants must die before I (and others) are able to curb our rabid consumption? When I started gardening seriously, I had every intention of instituting a perennial garden where, presumably, hardy plants would return, even increase, every year, making continual replacement and replenishment unnecessary. In such a case, my minimal needs might be met very well indeed by a neighborhood co-op.

I often wonder how much of my plant buying is utterly frivolous, whether I am unconsciously buying plants I know will fail so there is always a need to buy more. Is sustainability in this area impossible—at least for me? But then there is the marketing. “Ever-blooming” roses that put out 3 flowers in June and that’s it. Alstroemeria promised to survive in a zone 5b garden. The myth of the Endless Summer hydrangea. Mildew-resistant monarda. First-season blooming wisteria. Did I say about the ever-blooming roses?

Sure, we wise up to a lot of it, but we all have an Achilles-heel, garden-wise. It seems to me that planned obsolescence and consumer culture may be more a part of our gardening practice than many of us would like to admit. And that’s one reason I’m afraid I’ll never be able to shop sensibly and sustainably a couple times a season at my local co-op. Other than I just love spending lots of money on plants.

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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. We’re still hunters and gatherers deep inside, and we live in a culture where our gatherer instincts tend to get overstimulated. Of course we overbuy! It is possible to break the habbit, if you plan ahead and do it in a fun way. After all, heavy loads of flowers are what we enjoy, and you can reach that goal in many ways.

  2. Wow, Elizabeth, you’ve got my number! I too am a heavy consumer of local nurseries and mail-order sources. I agree with Rosegeranium that the desire is partly human nature. The Romans had a good description of it: varietas delectat (“diversity is delighting” or “variety delights”). People are naturally intrigued with new stuff and lots of it. Those heucheras in the picture for instance get me all excited. Some pretty amazing heuchera breeding has been going on recently and I like the new ones better than ‘Palace Purple’.

    Also, our gardens legitimately change over time and require different plants. My next-door neighbor last week took down a 60′ elm tree in their backyard. Now I’ve got a lot more sun and so I have to try out some more sun perennials (that’s how I justify my expenditures anyway). And certain plants don’t perform and need to be replaced with something “new and improved.” I guess one way to accommodate this reality is to trade for some new plants rather than buy. But I’m always going to be intrigued if someone like Tony Avent or one of my knowledgeable local nursery folks says a new introduction is a must-have.


  3. I feel I suffer from the opposite problem, especially when it comes to my own yard. I have a bit of a fear of commitment. It goes like this in my head – I sit at my house looking out the window, dreaming and finally make a list for the nursery. Then when I get to the nursery, I am so bowled over by my shopping cart prices that I actually put things back – I would kill to spend a bundle on Heuchera. I love them, but I end up with 2 (can’t buy just one. That would be utterly stupid). I buy some limited other stuff that turns out to be no less random, by the way. Then I head home, plant my piddly purchase and end up feeling unfullfilled. I think it’s great to go for the gusto. I saw an article somewhere a week ago that was called something like One Year to Garden. This women had decided life was too short and vowed to really build her garden in one year and she did. It was a huge ammount of work, a big investment and lots of effort to get her husband to help her, but she did it. It wasn’t the very perfect picture she envisioned but so much better than wehn she began. She felt so happy (and tired) by the end. That’s what I plan to do this year. I guess I have my own special motivation. Last October I was daignosed with breast cancer and have since been through mastectomy and halfway through chemo. I’m not nearly as strong as I was, but THIS is still my year. I’m gong to spend as much time and money as I can. And I’m going to feel really good about it! It’s good to follow your heart into the garden.

  4. I like to think of continued new plant purchasing as mimicing natural diversity increases over time in undisturbed habitat. there’s no basis for that thought but I find it helps (especially when I’m throwing cash away on another deciduous shrub to put into our 60+ species “native(ish)” “wild” hedgerow.

  5. Well, you just described me, and how I buy for my garden every year! I justify my several hundred dollar a year plant buying habit by having to find new deer and drought resistant plants, new shade-loving plants, and the “need” to increase my proportion of “natives.” Also that I just certified my garden through the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat, which gives me a whole new justification for buying new and more all the time! Ga-a-a-a, and I just retired too, which means I have to do all this from now on with my limited budget.

  6. Right you are, Elizabeth! We inveterate collectors just can’t seem to help ourselves. And when the promises seem too good to be true, instead of using common sense, we apply our hopeful genes to the mix and send more money. But isn’t gardening really all about faith and hope? I’m an optimist in the garden, and always will be. It’s so much fun!

  7. And speaking of the new heucheras, have you seen all the new echinaceas? OMG! There’s a lime coconut or coconut lime that I can’t wait to go buy. Dogwood designer, I bet your garden this year will be beautiful!

  8. Good luck to you, Dogwood Designer, and I pray the garden will bring healing. I also head happily off to the nursery with a list of “must haves” and end up with much less. My budget unfortunately doesn’t allow for spending as much as I’d like. And as for those great new echinaceas — I bought one two years ago and it was the only one the rabbits completely demolished. They could care less about the older, cheaper, plentiful ones. Why is this?

  9. Support you local small garden center, if they are providing top notch service and plants. Some small garden centers really don’t, and as such supporting them just because they are local would be wrong. That being said if they are top notch you might be interested in just how hard it is to survive, much less thrive as a small garden center just starting out. I wrote a post today on just that subject. It took the couple starting their nursery 6 years to break even.

  10. I’m a total flower floozy. I could never confine my purchases to just one local nursery, no matter HOW good the selection. I like to see how each nursery arranges things, and yes, I do shop the big box stores just to get some things inexpensively. I also spend a lot of money through mail order because there are things I want or things I want in specific sizes that I can’t get locally. Annuals need to be replaced annually by definition–and with all my experimenting, I have a fairly high perennial/shrub mortality rate.

    But to allay Trey’s fears, I do give my favorite local nursery first and last chance for my purchases, followed by the other local nurseries, and the big box stores are simply for fill-ins.

  11. Last year I set out to curb my reckless garden spending and did quite well. I traded plants more. I asked for special plants as presents. And I just waited to see if the plant that I “just had to have” was one I still wanted a month later. I still spend a lot on plants, but it’s no longer mindless and unintentional spending. It’s good for my soul (and for healing too Dogwood Designer!).

  12. Call me the Elliot Spitzer of gardening if you will, but I could never remain faithful to one nursery. I’ll always find some money to purchase plants to gratify my needs, where ever I can find them.

  13. The Oregon Hardy Plant Society has plant sales twice a year, spring and fall. Most of the specialty nurseries throughout the state bring their very best merchandise…the new, the unusual, the resplendent. By volunteering, I get to see plant-crazed gardeners and their hundreds of dollars worth of finds, then go off to amass my own stash…all for a good cause.
    Then there is the pure pleasure of a road trip, with a like-minded plant fiend, to visit far-flung nurseries and their display gardens.
    This is a blessed addiction, don’t you agree?

  14. Mildew resistant Monarda, yes Monarda bradburiana, aka horsemint, another good native gets to 15″ tall flowers here (KC) in late April well into May, nice pink flowers, great fall color burgandy into purple and good winter interest w/seedheads, also looks great with the hore frost of late fall. Check it out, it is a Plant of Merit for 2008. Plants of Merit is sponsered through MOBOT and you can go to their web site to find out more.

  15. Interesting read, as I am working with the opposite. One long-planned (as in, last June I decided I should have bought a few more things from them already) purchase from High Country Gardens, and several seed packets later… I might spend a paltry amount on this year’s garden. And I’m running out of room for plants. I would say that you need a small urban yard, Elizabeth, but… well… *grin*

    Jim, does this mean you spend insane amounts of money on brunette one-night stands? Er, I mean, pricey exotic annuals? 😉

    (mb/lh… who was talking about monarda?)

  16. Ah, mb… thanks for clarifying. I didn’t catch that, went back up and reread the post and missed it all again apparently! (I was having “a day” yesterday, that’s for sure. And I had just been looking at monarda seeds not too long ago… kind of felt like “monarda” was following me around somehow. lol.)

  17. I tried craigslist for some free plant swapping. I ended up giving away a lot of daylilies and hosta, but getting nothing in return. Oh well.

    I can’t afford to buy as many plants as I’d like because we are fixing up our little HUD house. I do buy some things on Ebay but low prices are not always a good trade for the risk of plants not growing. But last year I got some dahlias that did well, and it’s not a bad source for seeds.

    But in general, I try to get garden friends to trade perennials with me, and I do the same. Also, if I see a public area with overgrown perennials, I feel no compunction about grabbing a small unobtrusive bit for myself; I figure I am helping the plants by doing what is in many cases long-overdue subdividing! I also collect seeds the same way (especially easy to gather ones like cleomes). This lets me do some guerilla gardening as well (Albany has many sad urban neighborhoods in need of some color).

    One spot in my neighborhood has a big patch of iris and peony that has not been weeded or subdivided in years and last year the “landscapers” hired to mow the lawn just sheared all the plants down in late spring! So I rescued quite a few of them and replanted them.

  18. We went to the pittsburgh home & garden show. Sadly not many garden ideas or gardens. A disappointing experience and it is only blooming with microphones. We are craving spring. Can you suggest a good garden show? we live in the northeast.
    daisy & boots

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