Buying Plants Locally During the Shutdown

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Curb-side pick-up.

Oh, the ethical turmoil I’ve been in! Should I stay home and shop for food only, or support other local businesses, too?

Plus, it’s spring and we gardeners need to buy plants and supplies. I’ll confess that my greatest personal fear (after dying, of course) was that the garden centers would be closed this spring. But we got lucky, I guess – garden centers/nurseries have been deemed essential – presumably because what they sell is needed for both food-growing and upkeep of properties.

What about mail order, you might ask? I can’t imagine buying shrubs that way, and that’s mostly what I need.  I DID order some seeds online, but I’ve never had much luck buying perennials or annual plants that way.

So I’ve ventured out to buy locally, and the results have been mixed.

Curb-Side Pickup

I’d been waiting for months to buy very particular plants (especially Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’ – four of them) and as soon as they were in stock at a local garden center, I emailed my request to use their “personal shopper” service. That meant that an employee would show me the plants on offer and the particular ones being set aside for me to pick up. Oh, boy!

Got no response, so several days later I called and an employee found my order.  She reported that “Unfortunately, “Tangerine Beauty begonias are all sold out.”

Glad I was listening closely and could ask her to check BIGnonias –  not BEgonias – and promptly heard, “Oh, we have plenty of them.” Whew!

I was so thrilled to get a hold of the plants I wanted, I hadn’t bothered to ask for prices and the grand total was a bit of a shock but dammit, I DESERVED them. The next day when I  unloaded the plants from my car I checked the tags and found out those Bignonias were $50 each! Which I’m happy to pay if it’s a well developed plant like these are, rather than one that’s barely started. As a gardener my natural impatience often surfaces, and sometimes wins out.

In-Store

Needing Wanting a few MORE plants, and hearing from several sources that this same garden center was now serving customers completely outdoors, I drove back for more, eager to stroll the aisles like in Before Times. That info turned out to be incorrect, and customers had to go inside to pay. And it was inside that I was surprised and frankly pissed off to find employees practically in my face, they were so oblivious to the 6′ distance they should have been observing. Several of them!

When I asked (saying it was for an article about “how safe it is to shop here”), I was told staff were all wearing masks – but again, no. Not even the staff members taking customers’ money were wearing them. Including the manager on duty.

Oh, they told me to notice the plexiglass shield they’d installed at the cashier. But it’s of little to no benefit, with the cashier having to do a full-torso reach-around the plexiglass (without wearing a mask) to scan items in shoppers’ carts.

Here in Maryland, most of the independent garden centers are offering pickup/delivery only only, with customers banned from the grounds and indoor shop. I urged this one that’s open as usual to do more (do something?) to make their in-store shopping experience safer. And is there really no way customers could pay outdoors, say with their phones?

Video Shopping?

With in-store shopping hard to get right (apparently), I wonder if there’s another way to give customers the experience of seeing what’s there and then seeing the exact plants they’re buying. Something better than buying plants sight unseen, which must certainly lead to some unhappy results.

Hey, indie garden centers, with all the technology that stores and customers have, is there no solution? Your loyal customers want to buy more from you! Many of us avoid buying plants at the Big Boxes, and with reports of crowding and 2-hour waits to pay at Home Depot, will definitely not be doing it this year.

13 COMMENTS

  1. You’re braver than me. I would have driven away as soon as I saw the scene. No plant would be worth it.

  2. Please be patient. This is baptism by “COVID-19” fire. It takes every dollar and every ounce of energy for a garden center to do spring business in a good year. This is on top of that, and all new. Restrictions on the number of people allowed in stores, the amount of shopping they can do FOR the customers to prepare an order for pickup or delivery, the acts of taking the orders in the first place are all extra burdens heaped upon them just as the season begins. On top of that this may be a futile effort as there is no way possible to meet a normal season business volume this year, when upward of 70% is done in less than 3 months. No way to recover either because people have never bought much after July 4. Give them an extra amount of appreciation and patience and understanding Bev this may be your last chance to do business with many of them EVER. And BUY more now. You will have a hard time getting in the doors, or picking up, or getting a delivery next week, the week after and especially in May. Thanks.

    • Thanks Sid,
      We as independent garden centers are trying our best to make every single customer happy and most importantly safe. This is a learning curve for all of us… and we are going above and beyond anything that we have ever experienced, be patient is spot on, thanks!

  3. My local garden center isn’t open yet-will be by next weekend. Their plan is to offer curb-side pick-up and to also allow a certain amount of shoppers in the greenhouse. For those shopping in person, you choose an appointment time and you have the 1/2 hr time to do your shopping. I’m curious to see how it works out. I’ll support them no matter how they do this year’s season because they are a young couple-3rd generation- keeping the nursery going. They have offered ‘weekend wagon’ opportunities where they’ll place potted plants, onion and potato sets and such on the wagon just outside the greenhouse and you can pull up, get your items, leave your cash and go. I haven’t participated in that yet as they’ve not offered anything I need that way. But I do know from the facebook page that the honor system is working and they’ve sold out of every single item they’ve offered. I’m not sure if the Amish greenhouses I typically get heirloom plants will be open for business or how they’ll do it. They don’t open until closer to the end of the month. This pandemic could seriously hurt a lot of those greenhouses/nurseries.

  4. Hi Susan.
    I was in a similar situation, needing specific and hard-to-find shrubs for a project in the front yard where I had a large tree removed this past winter. I went to the same GC you went to, a day later. I got there shortly after it opened, garbed in my Superhero disguise of mask, gloves, and even safety glasses. I noticed they had a Purell dispenser at the entrance, which I thought was a plus. The store was pretty empty. Staff asked me from a distance if they could help me find things, and I was happy to find everything I needed. You are right about checkout–the cashier has to leave the plexiglass booth to scan the cart, so not sure what this accomplishes. But overall, I was happy as a clam and appreciative of the staff that comes in to try to keep the business in…well..business.
    I’m retired (from a different garden center) after many years in the GC business. The logistics of personal shopping and pickup are really quite difficult. If the customer wants four Bignonias, that’s pretty easy. But let’s say she wants the Bignonias, and two each of 5 perennials, and some pansies and maybe a wind chime. The order picker has to know what to look for and where to find it. That means taking one or more of your most experienced people from your limited staff and using them to gather orders, which removes them from the phones or sales floor. And of course, with limited store traffic cutting your sales by say 80%, you are losing money on top of it. So, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes issues that limit the GC’s ability to fulfill curbside pickup efficiently.

    I hope you give them another chance once we return to a more normal situation.

  5. I think it is unfair to criticize businesses trying to survive in unprecedented times like this. The stress levels are incredible. Every day offers a new plot twist and order to follow.

  6. Hi Susan,

    The world is going through such a tough time right now and humans need something to keep their minds off it. If everything were normal right now many people would be gardening and getting their lawns ready for summer! I believe that this is a great thing to do to get your mind off of the chaos. As long as we practice safe social distancing!

    Landscapers in Glendale

  7. So much of plant shopping is browsing. Even when I’m going in for something specific I’m looking around. So tough to have that taken away, but I remain in awe of the IGCs and other small businesses that are dealing with this as best they can and without a blueprint.

  8. ordered from on line plant list at local native plant nursery. Well sort of local an hour and a half away. Paid by credit card over the phone and was given a time window for pick up. Our plants were set out and tagged with my name. One salesperson came out to make sure we were the right folks and we loaded and left. Got some of them into the ground yesterday just before the rains. Yes, I’d like to be able to pick out my own plants and especially to be able to browse- spend a lot more that way, but…..it was great to get plants. I’ll be trying some mail order and our local garden center has pick up for amendments etc and has done the same arrangements. We have to keep supporting or they won’t be there.

  9. […] Fortunately for garden centers and their customers, they’ve been declared essential (because what they sell produces food and provides upkeep for grounds), but there’s no guarantee they’re all open for business. I know that Patuxent Nursery and American Plant are open only for delivery and curbside pick-up. Homestead Gardens provides those plus their regular in-store shopping. (Something I wrote about, urging changes.) […]

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