Wrapping Up 2020 at the Big Box Store



Wrapping Up 2020 at the Big Box Store

Bob Hill is back and overcome by impulse.

Problem No. 1 was I left my reading glasses in the car. Problem No. 2 was I was out foraging box-store garden centers in frosty December for whatever was left. Problem No.3 was that in having approached eight full decades of life I have taken a solemn vow to never again go home saying to myself, “Damn, I should have bought that.”

That does run somewhat counter to Problem No. 4 – ridding the clutter in old age created by impulse-buying in an already crowded life – but that should never apply to plants.


Why start now?

A day’s haul. Dwarf Alberta spruces flank a ‘Goldy’ arborvitae and an Italian Stone pine.

So, my plant trip finds included a couple of “Goldy” arborvitaes, three amaryllis, two dwarf Alberta spruces and there, way down low on the floor, was this tiny, interesting looking conifer wrapped in Christmas Glitz with an ornament in its foliage.

The Old Christmas Glitzy Yuletide Sales Pitch.

The printing on the plant tag was too small to read – see Problem No. 1 – but who cares – see Problems No. 3 and No. 4.

So, done in by Christmas Glitz, an ornament and its possibilities, the alleged plant expert hauls home a tiny conifer in a tiny pot for Christmas.

Part of me is thinking it could be fun to have around. Part of me is wondering what the hell is this thing? Part of me really didn’t care; I wasn’t going home without it.

Home it comes. Off comes the tiny tag. On go the reading glasses. Here, way way down at the bottom of the tag in teeny tiny print comes the truth.

It’s an Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea). Native from the Mediterranean to Syria and Lebanon and a popular landscape tree in Southern California. Hates hot humid weather. Doesn’t like temperatures below 20 degrees. Can grow two feet a year to 80 feet. Huge.

Shopping without eyeglasses leads to Zone 8 envy in Zone 6 Southern Indiana.

In numerical terms a zone 8 plant being sold as a Christmas gift in zone 6 in a very small glitzed-up pot in the Ohio River Valley.


I am thinking this is just retail wrong. Some little kid taking it home with dreams and wishes of planting it outside only to see it dead by August. Maybe July.

There goes any hope of this kid becoming a nature lover or an arborist. God help us, now he may become a lawyer. An angry young man. Sue the bastards selling the wrong trees in the wrong places.

If you can’t grow an Italian stone pine, you can always buy a good Chianti Classico. San Gimignano, Tuscany.

At Christmas!

I am also thinking of some bigger kid who should have taken his reading glasses inside on a box-store plant-hunting trip in December.

And that he would probably do it again.


Former Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Bob Hill wrote more than 4,000 columns and feature stories, about ten books and several angry letters to bill collectors in his 33 years at the paper. He and his wife, Janet, are former guides and caretakers of Hidden Hill Nursery and Garden in Utica, IN., a home-made, eight-acre arboretum, art mecca and source of enormous fun, whimsy, rare plants and peace for all who showed up. Bob’s academic honors include being the tallest kid in his class 12 years in a row. 


  1. I was given a tiny Norfolk pine one year at Christmas. It would never survive outside in my zone 6 NC yard. However, it’s now a 9 1/2 ft tall potted plant that comes indoors in winter to serve as my Christmas tree. However, the 8ft ceilings cause it some grief.

    If you’re 80+ years old, keep your stone pine as a potted plant and by the time it gets too big, maybe it’ll be someone else’s problem 😉

  2. Where I live in mountain zone Oregon rosemary won’t overwinter, so I bring my 2 potted plants in every fall. Rather than repotting them as they got bigger I started “bonsai-ing” them, occasionally cutting off about a third of the roots before putting them back in their pots with fresh soil. I’ve had the plants for over 20 years now; I bet you could do something similar with that tree.

  3. Lemon cypress are popular here for Christmas but definitely not hardy. Doesn’t mean I don’t buy them when they are little and grow them on to become fairly large container plants that overwinter in the garage. A mini gold forest over winter.

  4. This makes me think about how different the desires and demands surrounding retail really are as compared to actual, real-life gardening. I mean, when I worked in greenhouses it amazed me how little we actually catered to gardeners and how much we actually just tried to make the quick sale with pretty (albeit impractical) blooms and half-hardy plants. Let alone the fact that in fall garden centers are shutting down and have like zero perennials on offer. I almost enjoy this conundrum though, and I hope they don’t figure out that when they sell their deeply discounted, fall mixed containers with one perennial, a biennial, and a hardy annual for cold weather I am actually getting a phenomenal deal. I have had so much fun this year buying $5 large fall mixed planters with treasures I could plant and actually make work in my garden long term.

    • I went a little tongue in flower pot but really was thinking of little ones buy little plants with little chance of survival, at least not in a natural setting.
      Box stores can find Zone 6 babies.

  5. … and was it a Stone Pine? I saw those, too; resisted the challenge (I garden in the clay-ridden, humid North Carolina Piedmont) (oh, and the jacuzzi-bath has taken on its annual hothouse masquerade – no room for an Italian interloper); then couldn’t find a botanical garden showing that plant type as a Stone Pine. It has short grey needles. Hm. What do you think?

  6. Good question. Would thoughtless, greedy, Christmas despising merchants who sold a zone 8 plant in zone six to put little kids in tears then lie about it.
    Of course.

  7. Frankly I think it was just karma – for shopping plants at the Big box store rather than your local small nursery retailer. I think there was a study that noted that 86c of every $1 spent at a big box store leaves the region… so when your Mediterranean Pine goes south in a few weeks, it’s likely that your overall investment did too…

  8. Good point. I, myself, happily ran a small, funky, exotic plant nursery of whch you speak for, what I always like to say, 19 years of unintentional non-profit status.
    During that time I would check out box stores with more customers waiting in a checkout line at any one time than I would get all day. And I had good, interesting stuff.
    Those box stores sold stuff at cheaper prices than I could buy plants. Loss leaders for the store.
    I loved every minute of those 19 years. My takeaway is that very few people under 40 shop for interesting plants – it’s all about vegetable gardening – and the older folks are dying out.
    Then add in AMAZON AND SUCH mail order at OUTRAGEOUS PRICES but plants show up in a brown truck.
    I do shop every small nursery I can. Just hard to find for all reasons listed above.


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