Friday, November 11, 2011

Since You Asked...Sandra Dark About Buying Stock From Big Box Stores

In much of the country, the fall tree and shrub planting season is still in progress—and so are the questions I'm asked about buying stock from home improvement centers and other big box stores.

These high-volume plant outlets have become a major source for the anchor plants grown in landscapes across the country. As such, they are in many ways making an imprint on the quality and durability of urban forests—including the part encompassing your own backyard. This imprint can be either good or bad, depending upon how alert you are to both the up and down sides of shopping for live plants at the same place where you get your plumbing supplies, fishing tackle, and toothpaste.

So here are a few of the most important and frequently asked questions.

Q. How do I know if the store's trees and shrubs are of good quality?

A. To begin with, a store's living plants are only as good as its supplier—so ask who supplies the trees and shrubs. (You might hear, "Oh, the guy who knows about that stuff is off today." Wrong answer!) When you get the supplier's name, check them out online. Preferably, they are actually growers, and not just distributors that buy from unspecified nurseries and ship to retail stores.

(Note: Some stores sell last year's leftover stock that they buy from wholesalers and other retailers at a major discount. Even if you can buy one of these holdovers for a song, it isn't a bargain.)

But a major consideration is whether the store stands behind its plants 100 percent, unconditionally guaranteeing that your new tree or shrub will survive its important first growing season. (Save those cash register receipts!) Last summer, I saw customers returning dead trees and shrubs to home improvement centers across my community, after the plants were killed by a brutal heatwave/drought.

A. How do I find the best species for my landscape at a big box store?

Q. To be blunt, you often can't. For the most part, big box stores carry cookie-cutter trees and shrubs. These same species are seen in new housing developments from coast to coast, as well as in shopping center landscapes. What community doesn't sport ubiquitous red-tipped photinias,  Bradford pears, and other species whose main claim to fame is that they are easy on the wallet?

But many big outlets also offer species that are highly suitable and desirable for your local conditions, such as drought/heat tolerant crape myrtles in the Southern Plains, or bald cypress on the Southern California coast. (In this age of extreme weather, tolerance of  conditions most common to your locale should be a top priority when choosing plants.)

So do your homework before shopping. Contact your local cooperative extension agent or local native plant society to find out what species are suitable for the hot, dry, wet, windy, semi-shady or other conditions in your specific landscape. Then shop for only those species and varieties. If the big box stores don't carry what you're looking for, refuse to settle for what they have.

And don't depend on the advice of sales help in these stores! I have yet to come across a genuine horticulturist working in a big box establishment...but find that many of the untrained workers are very generous about handing out misinformation. So cross-check everything they tell you with authoritative online sources or your cooperative extension horticulturist.

A. How do I know if an individual plant is of good quality?

Q. First, check for signs of disease or infestation. (I once walked into a greenhouse that was overrun by aphids, and another where half the plants were coated with powdery mildew.) Take a close look at the stems and undersides of leaves.

Make sure the plant is symmetrical, and doesn't have a "bad" side caused by branch loss or growing too close to other plants.

Look for major stems that have been lopped off—a sign that the plant might have suffered damage, or was last year's stock that has been pruned back to keep it at a marketable size in its current pot.

Take hold of the stem near the base and gently rock the plant. If it shifts in the pot, then it's a holdover that has been repotted for quick sale. Such a plant is not a bargain at any price.

Finally, if you are looking for a flowering shrub that comes in a variety of blossom colors, wait unti the bloom stage before making your purchase. It isn't uncommon for such plants to be mislabeled, so you could end up with a pink crape myrtle instead of white.

And speaking of crape myrtles: after searching nurseries for two years, I found cinnamon-barked Natchez crapes at a big box home-improvement center last summer. I carefully picked the best in the bunch, and planted it on a 100+ degree day during an exceptional drought. The crape thrived, far exceeding my wildest expectations.

So you can fill your landscaping needs at a big-box store if you do your homework, shop wisely, and keep your eyes and mind wide open.

Where do you buy most of your trees and shrubs? At a big box store? A local nursery? Mail order?

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