We have been in the mulch and soil business for 40 years and much has changed over the years. My dad started working in the beginnings of the mulch business in Arizona and New Mexico in the early 1970's. At that time, mulch and soil was sold in bags by all sorts of retailers, big and small, but plants were strictly sold by local garden centers. Today, in the days of the big box stores, many places sell plants. The competition for garden center customers has become fierce, driven by low prices, and in many places there are few local garden centers left. The box stores have squeezed out many local businesses, but we're losing something when that happens. Frankly, we have done it to ourselves by thinking that price is the most important thing and being willing to sacrifice everything else. What about quality, knowledge and customer service? We had a recent experience with the big boxes that outlined the problem: We needed a few bales of peat moss to fill in our inventory until our full order was delivered. Our local garden center didn't have any yet, as it was early in the season. At big box store #1, the employee in the garden center didn't know what peat moss was and wasn't willing to find out. At big box store #2, the website said they had peat moss in stock, but the two employees we could find said they were "busy" and couldn't help us find it. Low price is not attractive when we're frustrated by poor customer service.
So are local garden centers important? Here are a few things to think about:
1. More Varied Plant Selection: Box stores buy in large quantities, but the trade off is lots of the same things. Pretty much the same colors and varieties we see all the time. I am in garden centers on a regular basis all through the year. When I go to a garden center, I do a walk through and scan for something I haven't seen before, like a new color or a new plant. Then I go back and look at tags to see if there's a variety of something I don't have. My experience is that local garden centers tend to have more varieties of plants. If you love flowers, it's like Christmas to find a new plant color or variety. If you are looking for a specific variety of plant, they might even be able to order it for you. The local garden center prides itself on having new and unique plant varieties, which enhances your gardening experience and enjoyment. I found these gorgeous double petunias at my local garden center last year and it was love at first sight. I have already talked to them this year and they plan to have some new colors of the double petunias. I can't wait!
2. Better Plant Quality: Local garden centers pride themselves on finding quality plant suppliers and taking care of their plants. They want the best plants, which are not necessarily the cheapest plants. Local garden centers own the plants they have for sale and when you own something you tend to take better care of it. If the plant dies or looks sickly it's a plant they can't sell and a financial loss for the store. Consistent care means that plants tend to be healthier and will do better when you get them home. Quality plants may cost a little more on the front end, but if it lives and does well in the long run it is worth every penny.
3. Local Plant Varieties: Local garden centers know what will grow and thrive in your specific area. I have often seen plant varieties at the big box stores that I know don't even grow in my area of the country. Those plants might look good now, but they will never grow here. It's a recipe for failure and a bad gardening experience. How many people think they have a brown thumb because they planted something that wouldn't grow here in the first place and it died? Locals carry the right plants that will grow and thrive in your area. They also know when to bring plants in so that the weather will be just right for planting. Have you ever bought plants too early only to lose them to a late frost? Local garden centers can help prevent that from happening by timing their plant deliveries to give you the best chance at success.
4. Knowledge and Expertise: Another thing I love about local garden centers is that they know their stuff and are available to help you. Have you ever looked for someone to help you at the box store? If you could even find someone, did they know anything about what they were selling? Yikes.
Your local garden center is a wealth of plant and soil knowledge and they often have horticulturalists on staff. If I need help picking something out that will grow in a certain area of my yard, they can help me with that. If I have a soil problem or a pest problem, they have the expertise to help me solve those. They are willing to share tips and tricks that will help me enjoy my yard space more. That expertise can greatly increase my chances of gardening success and can save me money in the long run, but it's worth paying a bit more for too. I've had people at local garden centers tell me that a customer will be standing in the big box store and calling them to help them pick out what they need. Don't do that, folks! If you need their knowledge, please buy their products.
5. Product Experience: Local garden centers make it their business to know and try the products they sell, which gives you a leg up in having a successful gardening experience. When you are buying soil and mulch at the big box store, do you really know what you are getting? Has anyone at the store tried the products? How will your plants do? When you are buying soil and mulch products, small garden centers often have excellent quality products that will cost about the same or less than the products you have been using. I've said it before, just because something is heavily advertised doesn't make it better. Smaller soil producers can't afford expensive advertising, but often make excellent quality products using local materials. Your local garden center can recommend some products your plants will love that are formulated for your area of the country. The plants you are buying will appreciate good soil and will grow and thrive, giving you enjoyment during the growing season.
6. The Local Economy: Local businesses buy other local products, which support your local economy and the money generally stays in the community. By buying local you may be supporting many other businesses who provide goods and services to your local garden center.
If we don't use our local garden centers, we may lose them. Once these local gems are gone, we will probably not get them back. They need you to realize their importance and shop them. They have a vital part to play in the industry and it is up to us to make sure they survive and thrive. Imagine your community without your local garden center. The day that the garden center at the big box store is all we have left will be a sad day, and we will have no one but ourselves to blame.