Should Plant Nurseries Offer a Guarantee on Plants?

I read an interesting post from my friend Debbie Roberts in Connecticut about her experience with a nursery that did not offer a guarantee on perennials, and it really made me think about the business of plant selling, how much responsibility us gardeners should take when we buy a plant, and whether offering guarantees on plants is good or bad business.

Debbie says:

While I still highly advocate buying plants from your local, independent nursery, even if you pay a few more dollars – if that nursery does not offer a guarantee, run away.   Believe me, the next place down the street values your business and wants you to keep coming back so they will happily offer a one year guarantee.

Now, I’m not picking on Debbie (she’s a fantastic designer, engaging writer, and gives of herself generously to help other landscapers in her community and online), but I have a different opinion on this.

When I try new plants, even new named varieties of plants I have tried the parents of, I accept the risk that they will die, and think of that as a natural (hopefully only occasional) part of dealing with living things.

Even plants that I have grown for years will sometimes up and die for no apparent reason or for a reason that is out of my control, particularly in that first year after planting – maybe a neighbor’s dog will pee on it every day for a week, maybe someone’s other half will get a little free and easy with the string trimmer and nick the bark, maybe the irrigation emitter gets plugged and doesn’t water, or maybe we just had a hard first winter.

And yeah, occasionally you’ll get a “dud” plant, which is why I do try to give feedback to the local nurseries on what has died if I can’t tell conclusively what the issue was. If a few people give the same feedback, the nursery I prefer has occasionally been able to get a refund from the supplier and pass that on to us.

But since I think of plant death as something that occasionally happens to even the best gardeners – a natural part of the process of growing plants – I don’t think it’s something nurseries should be expected to take responsibility for.

The nurseries I know of personally that offer plant guarantees are able to do so by saving money on some other aspect of their business to cover the cost of that policy.

Home Depot, for example, has taken heat for their pay-at-scan policy that contributed to Hines Nursery and others going bankrupt in recent years (read more about the problems at Hines here – the comments are particularly interesting).

I’ve also seen evidence, as has Graham Rice, of the plants sold at big box stores being over-fertilized and grown too quickly. This reduces costs for those wholesalers trying to sell to big box stores, but means that you get a weak plant that has a higher likelihood of dying or getting diseased in your garden.

Many other nurseries I have visited that offer return policies seemed to be skimping on the help, either hiring untrained staff who simply don’t know enough to give you any guidance or advice, or just hiring fewer people, so they’re constantly running around trying to water the backlog of wilting, sorry plants.

And still other nurseries just raise the cost on every plant so they can subsidize their return policy.

Let’s face it. “Free” stuff isn’t free. You’re paying for it somewhere. Yes, in some cases a return or other favorable policy will bring in enough extra business that it will pay for itself. But more often, what ends up happening is the business has to pay for that policy by cutting their costs or increasing their profits elsewhere.

I worked at an independent nursery years ago, and looking at the margins between wholesale plant cost and retail pricing – well, I’m amazed that between all the payroll, insurance, building and other costs they have to cover, that they haven’t gone belly-up.

I also got some insights into the type of folks who try to return plants. Sometimes it’s a responsible, knowledgeable person (like Debbie) who has done their utter best with the plant and gotten a dud.

But more often, it was someone who used the return policy as an excuse to give poor care – not watering, planting a sun-lover in shade, or just not paying attention/ doing their homework on which plants live reliably in our climate and which tend to die in a rough winter here.

I was at the register one day with two other gals, and a fellow came in with a 5-gallon Barberry that was completely shriveled and bone-dry in its pot. I could hold the pot in one hand, which will tell you how dry and dead that poor thing was. And when the man was told that we did not offer a return policy on plants, and particularly not when it was obviously dead from lack of water, he THREW the spiny Barberry at our 19-year-old checkout gal.

Most people aren’t that extreme. But multiple times, I’ve heard some variance on the idea that because there is a return policy at such and such place, that people are trying plants in areas where they will be neglected and just seeing if they live or not, then returning anything that died.

I don’t want to suffer through poor help, higher prices, or weakling plants in order to subsidize the neglect that other gardeners give their plants. I really feel that once you bring a living thing home, you’re stuck with it, or else your compost heap is!

The times when we do our best, like Debbie, and something dies – well, it’s good customer service if a plant nursery recognizes a good customer and gives you a replacement plant for free. But should that be our default expectation for every plant and every situation? I’d say a firm “no”.

Trey Pitsenberger, The Blogging Nurseryman, has this to say:

We want customers that accept some of the responsibility for their actions. No, I should not have to replace that plant that the deer ate or the cold killed.We told you they were deer resistant, not deer proof. We don’t plant out tomatoes until May, and at least we told you when you bought it.

The future of garden retail will be the tale of two different ways of doing business. The box stores and their suppliers, and on the other side the independent nursery and their suppliers.  One represents big business, throw away culture, and little or no corporate or personal responsibility. The other side represents small business, re-use and recycle, as well as personal and corporate responsibility.

It’s your choice.

Be sure and go on over and read Debbie’s response to my opinions in the comments (she makes some excellent points), and let both of us know: what do they do in your area? What do you think we ought to expect from our plant nurseries?

EDIT: in the comments on Debbie’s post, she and I have been comparing the cost of plants on our respective coasts, and it’s interesting what a strong difference there is. Go on over (link just above) and check it out.

Photo credit: antaean on Flickr

9 responses to “Should Plant Nurseries Offer a Guarantee on Plants?”

  1. What an appropriate post for me to read today. I’m going to spend my lunch hour driving out to a large nursery to get a replacement plant for the hydrangea Quercifolia Snowflake I bought last year. It didn’t look great when I bought it, but it was the last one left and I REALLY wanted Snowflake, not Snow Queen (which there were oodles of). I asked for a discount at the time I purchased it, in lieu of the one-year guarantee (it was in a 5-gallon pot, had several dead stems but had new growth coming from the roots and it cost $49.99). They wouldn’t give me a discount. It never grew last season. I assumed it was busy working on roots and not topgrowth. But there was no sign of life whatsoever this year and it’s going back for a replacement.

    I’ll be honest, I don’t usually keep track of plant receipts so calling in the plant’s guarantee is not something I do often. But I knew this plant had a 50-50 (or worse) chance of making it and for $50 I wasn’t going to lose that receipt.

    I’m not sure how I feel about guarantees (I need to read some of the links you included). I think in the case of trees and shrubs there should be one, and that it does benefit the nursery to offer one. There’s no way I would have purchased that hydrangea last year without a discount or a guarantee. And when I bought it, I bought several other items … items and plants I probably wouldn’t have purchased if I weren’t buying the hydrangea, because it was one of those “well as long as I’m checking out” kind of things. On top of that, that hydrangea would have died in my care or in the nursery’s care, so either way, it’s a write-off for them. Now they are going to get a second crack at me today when I get a replacement. Do you think I’m just going to take my free shrub and not buy anything else? Highly doubtful.

    I order from Bluestone Perennials about once a year. They sell smaller plants but they are nice quality. Small plants, as we know, cannot take the abuse that bigger plants can withstand, and there’s no way I would buy from Bluestone if they didn’t have a guarantee. I do order from Klehm’s Song Sparrow, which has no guarantee, but they are an exception, as their plant and packaging quality is among the best I’ve seen anywhere. Basically, I know that if a plant from them dies if it’s fine when it arrives, that it’s my fault, and as a gardener I’m OK with that.

  2. Now that’s an interesting case, Erin, and you make some great points! What I think should have happened is they should have given you like half off or something like you asked for, and no guarantee.

    The points you make about spending when you go in for your replacement, and that you bought other stuff because you were going to be checking out anyway – excellent points. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re totally right – I do that too.

    By the way – awesome call on wanting a Snowflake – aren’t they dear? I assume you’ve seen photos or something and that’s how you knew to want that one and not Snow Queen. I think Snowflake’s flowers are exquisite.

    (for those unfamiliar with Snowflake, check out the google image search!)

  3. Why does everything have to be someone’s fault? We have an oil leak, but no one considers the problem is all of us not being more serious about conservation.
    When someone gets cancer, the first though is that person did not it enough vegetables.

    Come on, stuff happens. Plants die. People get sick. It’s how you deal with it, not who you can blame for it that makes a difference.

    I’d never dream of going to a nursery and asking for a refund…

  4. Gen,

    Thanks for mentioning my post. Who knew my rant about my stupidity would touch a nerve with you? I’m glad we’re having a discussion about the pros & cons of plant guarantees. It’s an interesting topic that sounds like it has some definite regional overtones to it.

    Erin brings up a good point about mail order companies typically offering a guarantee. I did buy some ornamental oregano from High Country Gardens (HCG) last year and was very pleased with the quality of the plants. I feel in live with it in the catalog and couldn’t find it locally. Yes, the plants were very small but they seem to be settling in and putting out lots of new growth this year. I definitely purchased with HCG because of the combo of cost vs. plant guarantee.

    The other interesting point Erin makes is that she bought other plants at the nursery when she took a gamble on her hydrangea. I think that happens more often than not. When I find a business I like that I feel appreciates my patronage- be it a nursery or other retail establishment – I am willing to spend a bit more to make sure they will still be around next time I need to shop their again.

    You bring up a good point in your post that sometimes plants just die, through no fault of the gardener or the nursery. I understand that but I guess I don’t think I should be forced to eat that cost. Because, honestly, I’m going to blame it on the plant, not on me. Human nature, I guess? Especially in this case where my Karley Rose was the only plant of the over 150 plants in transition in my garden last year that died.

    I wonder if there are any nurseries that split the replacement cost of the plant and offer a store credit for 1/2 of the price of a failed plant. That would go a long way towards making clients feel the nursery is their gardening partner. It also acknowledges that sometimes good plants die and it’s no one’s fault.

    I couldn’t believe your story about the man throwing a barberry at the sales clerk. I wonder if he’s the same guy I saw last week pounding his fist on the counter at the drugstore when his prescription wasn’t ready on time? There’s no accounting for bad taste and poor manners, is there?

    I think Trey Pitsenberger’s comments (BTW, I read his blog too – wouldn’t it be fun if could get him to chime in on this topic?) are interesting but I’m not sure I agree that the future of retail garden centers will be the tale of two different ways to do business. Why can’t small business, with it’s personal and corporate responsibility mantra, move towards a partnership attitude? In my business, I sometimes offer my landscape design clients, especially seasoned gardeners, the option to buy their plants from me without a guarantee, for a lower price. I acknowledge to them that I am marking up plants when I guarantee them but I also tell them that if I’ve done my job of selecting the right plants for their garden and they do their job of caring for them, the guarantee is kind of meaningless.

  5. Debbie, what fun it’s been having this discussion here, via email, and over on your blog! I just realized I hadn’t yet responded here! I guess I was thinking of that last email I sent, LOL. I think all the sunshine lately has fried my brain.

    You make some wonderful points and your vision for small businesses moving forward into an era of partnership, rather than personal responsibility, is compelling. I really like how you put this into practice in your own business…

    And I love your suggestion that the nurseries offer a 50% credit for failed plants. That does seem like a way of entering into a partnership with people, and would probably get nurseries the benefits of more folks coming through the place and impulse-buying all the way!

    What a fun discussion. Thanks so much for participating in it with me. You rock!

  6. Genevieve,

    A friend sent me this post, and I was glad to get it. We have a landscape nursery at South Lake Tahoe (yes, for six months of the year), and this is always a tricky issue for us. Your post is well-written and well-thought out, and you are the kind of customer we appreciate doing business with. We do not offer a blanket guarantee, and I think you’re right that there would be a lot of abuse if we did, because there is abuse even though we don’t. We work with customers on a case-by-case basis, and I think it makes people try harder because they know they will have to make an effort to get a replacement (we rarely do refunds, we just can’t). They will have to answer some questions and tell us what was done or not done. Leaving a bunch of one-gallon pots of “drought tolerant” plants on a hot driveway, unwatered, awaiting planting for days, for instance.

    We do like to hear when things fail, though, because if there was a whole group of something that is failing in a variety of locations and conditions, then it flags a problem with the batch, the grower, and not necessarily the gardener. You are right, though, that, in an area like ours, with the possibility of harsh winters and the likelihood of roller coaster springs (freeze and thaw cycles, whole months of dry or wet conditions), not to mention the myriad of critters bent on destruction, there are far too many variables for us to be solely responsible. We also have a lot of second home owners in our area who think that their gardens can be left alone for weeks at a time, and then ask us to cover them when things fail. For this reason alone, it’s almost impossible for us to offer a blanket guarantee.

    One thing that I think gets overlooked (and I am constantly reminding folks) is that plants might need some water in the winter. I think, when a hardy plant fails in our area, it is often due to dehydration. You can’t just assume that, because it’s winter, plants don’t need water. If there has been no snow on the ground for a month (we’ve had plenty of dry Decembers or Januarys) and the sun has been shining and drying things out, even those dormant plants will want a drink. Trees, too.

    Thank you, thank you, for even a short acknowledgement of what it takes to run a small business. Hourly wages are doubled, by the time taxes and insurances are paid, and the endless parade of ever-skyrocketing costs really does make it tough to keep going. We try to see ourselves as a community partner, donating to almost every cause that asks, and offering our knowledge and experience to anyone who wants it. We’ve had people come in with a tree or plant they bought cheaply at K-Mart or some other large chain, and ask us how to plant and care for it. We tell them; we want them to be successful. In the case of Erin’s hydrangea, we most likely would have discounted it. We’d rather our plants find homes than rigidly stand on principle.

    I am also grateful to see at least Town Mouse has the attitude that not everything has to be someone’s fault. We try our best to offer good products and support to go with them, and we are very willing to work with customers who are willing to work with us. I really do think there are people out there who will not be happy no matter what you do or say, and I would love for them to be the ones shopping at Home Depot. I also would never dream of asking for money back on a plant (I wouldn’t have even before I worked in one), but I also don’t go into stores immediately asking for discounts on uncompromised items. You’d be surprised how many people do. To me, that goes back to being conscious of who you want to be in the world. Be a force for integrity and goodwill, and you will see it all around you, yes, even in the forum of buying and selling plants.

  7. Kel, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment. I read it with great interest.

    I own a business myself, and have had a number of clients say that I make more than they do per hour. I’m like, noooo, after taxes, insurance, and business expenses come out of it there’s not actually a whole lot left, plus I have to go home and work not for pay to actually keep the business running. It can be very hard to be a small business owner sometimes, and much as it’d be neat to offer this or that free thing, our margins aren’t so high as to always be able to afford these things.

    I love your reminder that plants can die of drought in winter. Even in my climate where it rains SO MUCH all winter, things under eaves often die from drought!

    This comment of yours at the end really struck me: “that goes back to being conscious of who you want to be in the world. Be a force for integrity and goodwill, and you will see it all around you, yes, even in the forum of buying and selling plants.” <<< Yes!! Love it. Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing, Kel. It's great to "meet" you.

  8. Debbie wanted me to chime in! I am just under a year late LOL! My personal opinion is if you kill a plant, for heaven sakes why blame the nursery? My professional opinion at this time is if your a customer of mine, and you ask for a replacement of refund you get it! We get so few returns it’s not really an issue. Debbie say’s, “I’m not sure I agree that the future of retail garden centers will be the tale of two different ways to do business. Why can’t small business, with it’s personal and corporate responsibility mantra, move towards a partnership attitude?” I wanted to ask her what type of partnership attitude we are talking about? Just didn’t get the jist.

    I think if your a good nursery you just won’t see that many returns. It best just to keep the customer happy and smile as you refund, or replace the plant. It makes for better sleeping at night.

    Genevieve, you have one of the most thoughtful and insightful blogs around. I love how you encourage conversation, and take the time to answer everyone. It’s not always easy, but it is noticed. Thanaks.

    • Trey – well, you’ve made my day with your kind words. It’s probably obvious by now that I feel the same way about your blog! You know how to keep it fresh and to get people thinking.

      I agree with both your personal and professional opinions! In my landscaping business, I often replace things that someone’s dog chewed or that died through no fault of mine, just for the goodwill, referrals, and to keep the jobsite looking good so I can take photos of it later!

      But I prefer to do that of my own volition and to have the clients feel I’m going above and beyond. When clients expect plant replacement when it wasn’t my fault they died – well, it rankles. It’s likely similar at the garden center – if good feelings are flowing all around, then it’s best to keep the good feelings going and make the customer happy so they keep coming back. Less fun to give a refund to someone demanding or rude.

      Cheers, Trey, and keep on fighting the good fight at your IGC! I hope I can visit someday when I’m in the area.