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.
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