Breaking Ground

Zero Tolerance

by Derek Burch


I am part of the horticultural industry, have been for a good many years, in positions from the bottom to top and back again (is anything lower than a consultant?).


I have been a gardener even longer than I have been in the industry, and I am tired of shoddy performance by garden center people who should know better, and saddened by the members of the gardening public who accept the treatment foisted on them.

Let me address the gardeners first. Please don't buy a plant that is not named, and/or which the salesperson is unable to name. I break my own rule on that, because I often do know the plant, or have a chance of working out what the name is. But if you don't know the plant, how can you possibly plant it in the right spot, or give it the correct window sill? And a label that says "Tropical Plant" is not enough. Make a point of telling the owner or manager of the store that you were interested in the plant, but will not risk buying it unless you can find out how to grow it well. With enough people doing this, the message will be driven home quite forcefully.

Don't feel too sorry for the manager, since the name of each plant should be on the invoice that came with it from the grower. Of course, in the megastores that have a garden center tacked onto the side, this week's manager was probably in bathroom caulking or changing light bulbs last week. Stay away from stores where this is the case.There is no need to buy from them and take your lumps when things go wrong with your plants, when there are conscientious stores that would value your business.

The one rule that I do stick to faithfully goes beyond the name question: If there is a single section of the garden center with dried out or neglected plants, I will buy nothing at all from them. How could I know that even plants that look good have not had their share of abuse at the store? I don't want my garden or my house to be a convalescent ward.

And a guarantee doesn't help my thinking. I don't want my money back, I want the plant that I chose because it was just right for my garden. And I don't want a replacement in July that will never catch up with what the plant that I bought in March should have done.

Does the problem with telling what the plant is, go further up the supply chain? Obviously it does when the plants arrive in the garden center without names or called simply "garden plant." But here market forces come into play - if the garden store will only accept plants that are correctly named, then the sloppy growers will soon come into line. There are tags available from the label printing companies for literally thousands of plants.The really concerned grower will work out some way to get these on the plant, although I must admit that that part isn't easy or cheap with all the complications caused by the stores that require their own sku numbers and bar codes on the plants.

Now, if there are any industry people reading this - is my thinking too out of whack that we have a tremendously enthusiastic set of potential gardeners at this time. And that, for many of them, growing plants is a subject almost as terrifyingly foreign as fractal geometry is to me. I believe that it is essential that we make the world of plants accessible and friendly, even comforting in its familiarity.

We have to recognise that there are several categories of buyers in the United States. A small percentage are intensely interested in their gardens, work in them, read magazines or books or catalogues, perhaps go to flower shows. In numbers, these probably equal the numbers of enthusiasts in Britain, but here in the United States they are spread over a lot more real estate so don't have as much impact in any given locale.

Then there is the "keep up with the neighbours/do SOMETHING with the yard/ get some color around" group. What they see is what they buy, but a percentage drift into the third and largest group.These are the people who are just now finding that they enjoy plants. They may never have had much space in which to garden, and don't really know where to turn when it comes to planning and planting.

This is the group that desparately needs the assistance of everyone in the industry, not only because they are probably very nice people, but because our self-interest dictates that we must keep our market growing. We need to help each of these beginners to get enough satisfaction from their gardening efforts that they stay with us and keep coming back for more. We are competing for discretionary spending money with every other leisure activity, and must ensure that the people who choose to enjoy plants with us don't regret their decision.

Information on what a plant is, and what it takes to grow it well, has to come down the line from grower to garden center to the gardeners if it is something unusual. The growers will know how to raise the crop in the most efficient manner, but this may not convert directly to what the plant needs in the very different, and much more hostile, environment of the average garden. The growers may not know what the garden needs are from their own experience, but the conscientious companies will make every effort to find out and pass it on, ideally in the form of information-rich labels or as some point-of-purchase hand-out material. There are legions of horticulturists around who can help with this, and no excuse really for not doing it. Hire me or another consultant, and we will do it for you.

Well, this started out, like most of my editorials,with a simple suggestion and drifted on from there, but it is actually all of a piece. Gardeners should choose their garden center wisely, avoiding those from which they do not get service and help if they need it. And garden centers, as the front line in serving gardeners, should be willing to insist on basic help from their suppliers about the plants which they stock. And the wholesale nurseries, if they want to stay in business profitably and expand, must take responsibility for seeing that everyone down the line is fully informed about the plants being grown.

It all seems so simple, but I know from the questions that come into, that many plants are being sold without even a name on them. Does the industry care? It had better, or all our gardeners will be off sailing or breeding hamsters.

I care.

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