GOOPs: Buyer Beware

I know many gardener’s feel that if you’re not killing a few plants each season, you’re doing something wrong.  Honestly, I don’t subscribe to that mantra.  I’m not saying I’m a perfect gardener, but I really don’t kill too many plants.  I can probably count on both hands the number of plants I’ve killed over the past few decades. And the death rate has slowed significantly as I’ve learned more about gardening in general and my own garden conditions specifically.  

A happy, healthy 'Karley Rose'

So, you can imagine how distraught I was to see I had apparently killed a seemingly healthy Pennisetum orientale  ‘Karley Rose’ some time between last spring and just a few days ago.   I had been lusting over ‘Karley Rose’  for a few years and got it into my head last spring that I needed to buy one so I could trial it in my garden before using it on any of my landscape design projects.   I looked at all of my usual wholesale suppliers but no one had any ‘Karley Rose’ grass so I decided to head to my ‘go-to’ ornamental grass nursery, Poundridge Nurseries.   

For those of you not familiar with Poundridge Nurseries, here’s a bit of background history.  Poundridge is an independent nursery about 10 miles from my house, located in Poundridge, NY.  It has been in business for years and years and years.  It has the reputation of being very expensive but also having very good quality plants.  I used to consider it the best place to get hard-to-find ornamental grasses.  Whenever I teach a garden design class or am asked by a garden coaching client about the best place to buy ornamental grasses, I always tell them to head straight for Poundridge Nurseries.  I never hesitated because I had bought plants from them periodically over the years and never had any issues.  Until I bought my ‘Karely Rose’ last spring. 

Not only are ornamental grasses almost impossible to kill, I grow about a dozen different varieties of ornamental grasses in my garden and none of them have ever died.  ‘Karley Rose’ is hardy to zone 6 (I garden in zone 6) and she was planted in a somewhat sheltered spot so I wasn’t pushing the zone with her like I knowingly do with some other plants.  Add the fact that last year, I added/bought/transplanted/divided over 150 different plants in my garden and none of them died – except ‘Karley Rose’.  In case you’re wondering, yes, that number of plants in transition in my garden in one year is very high and it happened for many reasons but I mention it because I didn’t ‘kill’ anything else.  

Did I kill 'Karley Rose'?

 When I finally had to accept that ‘KarleyRose’ did not make it through the winter, I decided to dig out my receipt and take her back to Poundridge Nurseries for a refund.  I hate to admit it, but I definitely overpaid for this grass.  Like I said, I was determined to own a ‘Karley Rose’ grass last spring so I forked over $32 for a 2-gallon container.  In my defense, I thought I was getting a one year guarantee.  What reputable nursery doesn’t offer one of those?  Even Home Depot refunds your money if you bring back your dead plant and a receipt.  

Ok, I admit it, I assumed there was a plant guarantee.  I’m not saying Poundridge Nurseries lied to me or concealed any facts – more than likely the big sign over the cash register with all that little writing says something about perennials not being guaranteed (apparently they do guarantee woody plants) but I never even thought twice about it.  I was buying a plant from a local, independent nursery who I assumed was my gardening partner and valued my business.  Guess again!  

So the moral of this GOOPs is buyer beware.  Sometimes you get a ‘lemon’ plant.  It happens.  But you shouldn’t have to eat the cost of the lemon.  I wonder if anyone else had any issues with their ‘Karley Rose’ that was purchased from Poundridge Nurseries last spring?  Could I be the only one whose ‘Karley Rose’ died?  Could my green thumb have turned black for just that one plant last season? 

So make sure you only buy from reputable nurseries who offer a one year guarantee on all their plants (except annuals).  And make sure you ask about that guarantee before you open your wallet.  Take the time to read the fine print on the sign hanging over the cash register.  Don’t be like me and look around to see what other interesting things you might be able to buy.  Focus on the transaction.  And finally, 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.    

Will I ever shop at Poundridge Nurseries again?  I hate to say it, but probably.  They are still the ‘go-to’ ornamental grass nursery in the area but I will not unconditionally recommend them like I used to.  I will probably only visit at the end of the season when the ‘un-guaranteed’ perennials are on sale and I know what I’m getting myself, and my wallet, in to.  

Thanks to Joene Hendry of joenesgarden for hosting GOOPs (gardening oops – a celebration of the mistakes we all make in our gardens) again this month and giving me the perfect forum to rant about my dead ‘Karley Rose’ and my frustrations at wasting my money.  Don’t forget to head over to Joene’s blog and see what her GOOPs is all about for June.

11 thoughts on “GOOPs: Buyer Beware

  1. So sorry your Karly. The only thing I’ve lost ornamental grasses to is voles.

    I have mixed feelings about plant guarantees. I understand the hesitation to guarantee for one year since there is no way to know perennials will be planted and cared for properly. On the other hand I think nurseries should work with a repeat customer who knows what they are doing.

    Thanks for adding a great GOOPs rant to June’s GOOPs Day.

    • joene,

      I’m with you on plant guarantees…quite honestly I’d rather not ‘pay’ for one and get the same quality plant at a lower price. Always happy to elaborate on my GOOPs, I certainly have my fair share of them!

  2. I just never assumed there even were guarantees for perennials… I thought only woody plants were guaranteed. I have gone to a local nursery and simply said “my abelia died”, and they gave me a new one. No questions, no dug up dead proof. But I never thought to ask if perennials were guaranteed anywhere!

    • Hi Laurie,

      Isn’t that funny? I would assume the nursery would want some type of proof but I guess they build the replacement cost into the selling price so they probably don’t want a bunch of dead shrubs to dispose of. Maybe it’s just a regional thing here in Fairfield County, but the majority of the reputable nurseries happily offer guarantees on perennials and woodies. Some even offer a 2 year on larger trees/woodies they install for you.

  3. They don’t guarantee anything around here. I figure any time you try an untested variety, it’s cross-your-fingers time. I expect if i am aggressively trying new varieties that come out then I will lose a certain number of them each year, and it’s just a cost of doing business.

    Plus, sometimes plants just die, even grasses. I had one terrible year for buying Stipa arundinaceas (now Anamanthele lessoniana) where from one supplier, they never bushed out and relaxed into looseness the way they normally do. I told the retail nursery of my issue and they stopped carrying them from that one bad source – but there was definitely no replacement.

    I think nurseries have high enough costs already. I don’t want them to cover everybody’s “whoops I didn’t water” because it raises the prices for everyone (you don’t think they’ll just eat that cost of replacement without covering it somewhere), and the times when us legitimate pros have an honest problem – well – it’s just cheaper for us to eat the price of one plant than pay a buck per plant more to cover the cost of them providing a guarantee.

    Also, no comparison between home depot and a specialty nursery in my book. They put some good wholesale suppliers out of business with their draconian ways of doing business, push those wholesalers for ever-cheaper prices, which means the plants are grown quickly and over-ferted (so they get diseased more easily and can break or die more easily), and then they often neglect their plants once they’re in store – then don’t pay the wholesaler for any plants that didn’t sell EVEN if it was HD’s fault they didn’t sell because they killed them!

    And Home Depot’s never given me great advice, special-ordered something super-cool, taught me about a new plant, or given out my card.

    That’s just my two cents from having very few local big box stores (thank god), no local folks who guarantee (actually, there’s one, but their plants are crap and the service is worse), and having worked at a retail nursery in the past. Hope it’s OK that I’m a dissenting opinion on this, Debbie!

  4. Gen,

    Dissenting opinions are always welcome, and encouraged. I think things may be a bit different here in my neck of the CT woods compared to your neck of the CA woods. Here, the retail nurseries generally offer plant guarantees. I guess it could be considered a cost of doing business here and yes, I assume the cost of that guarantee is built into the selling price. I also think the ‘guarantee mark-up’ is closer to 20 – 25% of the selling price. If they want to keep selling to the very discriminating Jones’ they have to offer that guarantee.

    It might surprise you to know there is one re-wholesaler in our area that actually offers a plant guarantee. Supposedly they are only open to the trade and their prices are very competitive with other wholesalers in the area. Because of the guarantee, it is a very popluar place with landscape contractors to get plants.

    As far as plants from the big box stores, I wholeheartedly agree with you about all the cons of BB plant centers. Many of their tacics are deplorable and the buyer beware warning goes double for plant pruchases there.

    I do however think the difference in quality of SOME BB plants vs. similiar plants available at local independents is dwindling in some cases. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to hit the BB rght after a delivery. I’ve heard tales from fellow landscape designers/contractors who see the same truck delivering plants to the re-wholesaler (who often sells to the independents) and then heading out to a BB in the area. The lines are getting very blurry – at least around here.

  5. What a great response, Debbie. I’m really enjoying thinking this matter through.

    I’m curious now – how much do plants generally cost in your neck of the woods, where this type of return policy is standard?

    Here we pay about this much for one-gallons:

    $7.95 for perennials that don’t have a patent

    $8.95 for named varieties of sub-shrub (like types of Lavender and Heather) and many perennial

    $12.95 for perennials like Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with a fancypants patent

    $12.95 for most ferns and grasses

    $9.95 for most shade perennials

    $8.95 for fast-growing shrubs

    $12.95-$18.95 for slow-growing or particularly cool shrubs

    Your comment about how your local nurseries just see this as a normal cost of doing business and build it into their prices makes me wonder whether our plant prices are different on the whole.

    Thanks for this discussion! I’m learning a lot and having fun thinking about this issue.

    I actually kind of like the idea of a wholesaler offering a guarantee to landscapers and such. I think there’s a high probability that we’d be taking great care of our plants. I mean, the cost associated with going out to a jobsite and replacing a plant for a client is high enough that being careless simply isn’t a sustainable way of doing business – not to mention we’d look like fools to our clients! I’d totally favor a store like that, I agree.

    • Hi again Gen,

      I agree, an open discussion is enjoyable for me too and I hope readers will add their comments too. Your comments are making me think about my opinions on the topic also. My initial post was more rant than well- thought out opinion and I must admit much of what I said was based on me as a gardener (admittedly not the typical plant buyer or grower) and not on the average independent nursery client. Your past experiences as an employee of such a nursery open you up to whole world I can only imagine. (My closest ‘retail’ experience dates back to an ice cream parlor while in high school and I can’t remember anyone ever trying to return anything or asking for a guarantee:))

      I can already tell the world of plants is a bit different on our respective coasts. Here are the costs in my area for similiar plants:

      Gen: $7.95 for perennials that don’t have a patent. Debbie: $14

      Gen: $8.95 for named varieties of sub-shrub (like types of Lavender and Heather) and many perennials. Debbie: $15

      Gen: $12.95 for perennials like Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with a fancypants patent. Debbie: $14

      Gen: $12.95 for most ferns and grasses. Debbie: $15

      Gen: $9.95 for most shade perennials. Debbie: $15

      Gen: $8.95 for fast-growing shrubs. Debbie: Most shrubs here are sold in 3 or 5 gallon containers but I did find a basic white azalea in a 1 gal container for $22.

      Gen: $12.95-$18.95 for slow-growing or particularly cool shrubs. Debbie: I found a one gal Buxus ‘Green Velvet’ for $22. ‘Cool’ shrubs would be at least twice that, especially conifers.

      Here are a few items that might surprise you:

      1 gal Hakonechloa “Aureola’ in a branded container: $25
      3 gal Goldmound spirea: $30
      3 gallon caryopteris: $42

  6. Pingback: Should Plant Nurseries Offer a Guarantee on Plants? | North Coast Gardening

  7. Oh great googly moogly, plants cost a bomb out there! You know, the fact that your retail plants in CT are so much more expensive than the ones here in CA really makes me think.

    It’d be easy to say – hah! It’s because they cover the cost of guaranteeing the plants! But I don’t think that’d be entirely accurate.

    What I am wondering is whether plants grow more slowly and take a little more coddling to establish out there than they do here. We have a very mild climate and things do grow lushly here.

    I’m wondering if that would account for many of the differences we’re seeing in our markets. It would explain plant cost being higher, customers needing a guarantee to feel comfortable purchasing, and would also explain why shrubs are commonly sold in larger sizes there.

    I mean, we have bigger sizes available, but most things are also avail. in a one-gallon.

    Also – $25 for a Hakonechloa!! Whoa! $12.95 here, max.

    This is a fascinating discussion.

    • Hi Gen,

      I think the higher cost of plants here is due to lots of factors, one of the largest being the cost of living out here. Our cost if living is one of the highest in the nation. I also live in the part of the CT with the highest cost of living.

      I just read an interesting article in a publication by the CT Nursery & Landscape Association (CNLA) and it said a few things I thought you might find pertinent to this discussion (I’ll scan it and send it to you so you can read the entire article). First, CT residents have the highest per capita income in the nation and one of the highest # of years of education. The implication is we are savvy clients. And, the article says, a CT consumer ‘delights in the personal victory of getting the best quality merchandise or service at the lowest price, or at the best value’. Sound like anyone you know??

      I garden in zone 6. What zone do you garden in? Using the 1 gal. Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’ as a ‘test plant’, I’d say it would take 3 – 4 years to reach maturity here. How long do you think it would take to reach maturity in your area?

      While I am beginning to see ‘Aureola’ more and more often in nurseries, they are still a bit unusual. Grasses like pennisetums or panicums sell for closer to $15 for a 1 gal. container. The other Hakonechloa cultivars, like All Gold or Nikolas, are almost impossible to find. The wholesale suppliers seem to carry them but they haven’t made it to Main Street yet. I think that is also fueling the steep prices.

      I’m learning alot from our back & forth convo. Who knew things were so different?

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