I love to visit garden centers, and I make it a regular habit throughout the growing season. I don’t always buy, but I live in the hope that I will discover a new and different plant, or find just the right thing to fill a hole in my border, or uncover a source of inspiration in the displays. Recently though, I have seen some changes in the garden centers that I frequent, and those changes disturb me. Visits to the garden center are delightful in April and May. The growing season is just getting underway, new plants are being delivered every day, and everything is green and fresh. On weekends the parking lots are crowded with people buying hundreds of dollars worth of annuals and perennials. On weekdays you can see the landscape contractor’s trucks going in and out, laden with shrubs, mulch and other standbys of the trade.
But I think the real test of a garden center comes in July and August, those torrid months when even the most devoted gardeners chose to refresh themselves by going to the beach or lying in a hammock reading gardening books. A few years ago, when gardening was hotter than hot, garden center managers stocked their premises so abundantly in the spring that there was still a substantial amount to chose from come July. To speed things along many establishments offered mark-downs on the leftovers.A few years ago I remember buying ten hardy geraniums (cranesbills) for about $15.00, a fraction of what they would have cost me in April. I could also depend on finding potted roses at the end of the season. It’s true that some were beset by blackspot, but there were bargains to be had on interesting cultivars.
Now gardening, while still extremely popular, has given way to other things. The people who were mad about Gertrude Jekyll-style mixed perennial borders have decided that what they really want is “outdoor rooms”, where the emphasis is on furniture and decoration.Plants have become a kind of green backdrop.Instead of wanting that fragrant, hard to find old fashioned rose, the trendy person now yearns for the latest in plantation raised teak furniture or the most ferocious gas grill.Gardening has become just another component of “outdoor living”.
Now when I go to most of my favorite garden centers in July and early August, there is very little left, and I think that’s why.There are still flats full of leggy impatiens, which are great for instant color, but if you are just finding the time to plant perennials, you are pretty much out of luck. Sometimes you can get some daylilies, a few leftover hostas and assorted stragglers of other species. These survivors are marked down minimally, if at all, and look like abandoned orphans, watered occasionally, but basically written off. The only roses left are the semi-generic “ground cover” type that real rose lovers rarely buy. The exception to this sad state of affairs is herbs. There always seems to be an abundance of herbs left, and if you have suddenly decided to install an herb garden on your summer vacation, you can usually find a decent assortment.
It is not really the garden centers’ fault. In truth, mid-summer is not the ideal time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials. The big growers that supply most local retailers plot their harvests for early spring delivery. Independent operators and small chains are also up against the concrete wall of aggressive capitalism. Caught up in the competitive maelstrom with the mega- merchandisers, mail order and Internet vendors, their margins are thinner than a layer of landscape fabric.A certain amount of caution is essential in their spring buying, lest there be a glut of unsaleable merchandise in midsummer, a time when the majority of customers will not be buying plants. The best small merchandisers can do with the unsold inventory is keep it watered, repot it in attractive ways and hope that garden center addicts like me will come by and take at least some of it off their hands.
>So what’s the avid gardener to do, other than dream of chrysanthemums and spring bulbs? You can do what your local garden center can’t, and overbuy in the spring. Establish a holding area somewhere on your property and keep your purchases watered. Then you will have the plants you want, even if you have to care for them for a month or so. You should also keep scouting the garden centers regularly and buy when you find something that fits your needs. This helps you and it helps the retailer. Remember that just because a plant looks a little tired, doesn’t mean that it won’t thrive in your garden. Leggy annuals can be cut back, and will oblige you with another flush of blossoms. Daylilies that have already bloomed still provide a nice display of foliage and will give you a head start for next year. Phlox that have survived this long without getting powdery mildew are probably impervious to it. And don’t forget all those leftover herbs. Many of them, such as the bi-color sages, make wonderful and unusual subjects for porch or patio pots. With a relatively small investment, you can create an entire potted herb garden. If you have bare sunny spots, don’t be afraid to try some of the groundcover roses. You may be able to get them at a discount
The important thing to remember is that if garden center operators are convinced that there is a demand for plants, they will supply them. I know that I am only one of the many gardeners who has never passed a garden center without stopping in. It’s up to us to make our presence known to the merchants who feed our plant habits.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg