How to locate your own "motherlode" - "secrets" revealed!

Jacksonville, FL(Zone 8b)

I've been hauling in bargain plants week after week for about 2 months now, and am still getting them at $10 per approx. 7 ft high x 5 ft wide x 2 ft deep rack. It is wonderful to be able to fill my yard with so many annuals and even perennials and also offer them up for free to my DG friends, cohorts, and other gardeners (and a few newbies that required a whole lot more basic instruction than this admitted "garden snob" is willing to offer on a steady basis).

I've now been at it long enough, and talked to enough people at the store where I get the bargain plants, to have what I think is a fairly good grip on the company's policies and procedures. I was not certain in the beginning of this amazing deal if this was an arrangement that might be jeopardized if too many people starting asking questions of the store, and I was, therefore, a bit circumspect in the details I provided about the offer. I felt it best to keep the deal somewhat under wraps so that I could be more certain that it would be sustained and that we would all be able to share in the benefit of so many plants available. It seemed logical to have one person act as the intermediary contact with the store so as not to cause confusion and concern (and it still does seem to work best for a single person to be the plant hauler, I think).

In the haul yesterday (4 racks - $40 for about $1200 in plants including a lot of "Mosquito Plant" Pelargonium citrosum that is up for grabs!), the store was short-staffed and the cashier could not locate anyone other than the Store Manager (big boss man) himself to do the override for the plant purchases. This gave me the opportunity to gently direct a few pertinent questions to someone I felt would be sufficiently knowledgeable about the actual company policies and procedures to give me accurate answers that I could then share with those of you that might want to arrange your own "motherlode" plant bargain bonanza deals.

But....before you read on to find what steps you may need to make the arrangement to haul away "distressed" plants, these are the requirements I've found that you will most likely need to have in order to set up such a deal:

1. A large old van with a high capacity cargo space. I just happen to have the old 1979 Chevy van with a 12 ft cargo space that I bought a few years ago for $280 and that I've managed to keep running well without too much expense. A similar vehicle is needed if you want to haul bargain plants. Even with the 12 ft cargo space, I have to stack (carefully, so as not to crush any of the darlings!) the plant trays one atop the other, sometimes until the van is packed (literally!!) floor to ceiling with plants. I don't have to worry about getting the interior of the van dirty or have anyother such esoteric concerns (other than hoping the rear doors will stay shut when fully packed with plants and not swing open while climbing one of our seven bridges in Jacksonville and suddenly find that I have landscaped a good portion of the Interstate concrete!). A normal sized SUV or other van would probably not work for you. The store generally wants the plants hauled off IMMEDIATELY. A prime reason they have for moving the plants out all at once is to improve appearances in the store. They might allow you to make several trips back and forth to load plants if you suggest they put the plants outside in the delivery area of the parking lot where they are out of sight. I don't think an open bed truck would work as the plants would probably suffer further stress from wind damage during transit.

2. Access to cheap, clean water. My irrigation pump has not been working since I began the bargain plant hauling. I dread to open my utility bill this month and see how much I've racked up in costs of water/sewer charges for having to soak hundreds of potted plants about twice a day during the prolonged hot and dry spell we've had.

3. A yard big enough to provide storage space for the potted plants while they recuperate. I happen to have 1/2 acre that includes an as yet unplanted clear space that exists in my imagination as a formal topiary garden (I am reminded of the old adage: "Neurotics build castles in the sky; schizophrenics live in them!"). This spot in my yard is ideal because, as the sun moves through the day, the 40 ft x 40 ft area has every degree of light, from constant deep shade to nearly full sun). I'm able to place the flats of potted plants where they have the best chance of recovery. In addition to using the imaginary topiary garden space, I also have the plant "hospital" in my patio to provide intensive care to the plants most in need of attention and special or additional waterings. So, it takes a lot of garden space to be able to handle the influx of hundreds of potted plants.

4. About 20 hours per week of otherwise free time (very conservative estimate of time involved) to devote to loading, hauling, unloading, providing "triage" health assessments upon arrival of the incoming wounded, and tending to the plants.

5. Enough experience with gardening to have a sense of how to heal distressed plants. Usually, it only takes a bit of rest in a somewhat shady locale and proper watering to restore them to good health and flowering. I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "green thumb." To me, it seems to be more a matter of long term care of plants that leads to being able to nurse the ailing ones back to vitality. I follow the rule, "Never fertilize a sick plant." This seems especially true for these distressed plants. It helps to think of them as having something like the flu or some other illness when I am so sick that the very thought of food makes me gag. The plants are in this state when they are dehydrated and suffering from abuse and neglect.

6. Enough empty space in your garden to have room to add hundreds of plants, or have plenty of gardening friends that are willing to take them, or have a community project that is in need of plants. This has not been a problem for me! I do have a large lot that has plenty of empty spots, DG puts me in touch with many gardeners interested in plants and I have local friends that have wanted all the plants I can supply, and I've been able to donate plants to my church and for the St. Augustine Council on Aging new garden to be dedicated this month. One of my original thoughts was that I might sell some of the plants on eBay or hold a big garden yard sale of plants, but that so far has been too much trouble to want to deal with.

If you are not able to meet any one of the above requirements, purchasing distressed plants in bulk may not be right for you.

Of course, you need not be as obsessive/compulsive as I am and may find that you are able to arrange to haul one load of plants and never return for more. But for me, the excitement of what new plants become available on a weekly basis has been to enticing to resist. I now walk through the store looking at the plants on display in the garden center and hoping they will show signs of distress soon so that I can haul them home and fill empty spots in my garden with new species! I can't imagine not checking in with the store a few times a week to see what may be available.

You also might be able to meet the above 5 requirements by forming a group "co-op" for bargain plants and split up the duties. For instance, 1. If enough people have large vehicles, you could provide the appropriate transportation 2 & 3: you could divide up the incoming plants according to who has the best accomodations for them -- one person take shade plants, another take those requiring more sun, and someone else taking the full sun plants, and thereby split up the watering costs as well. 4. The division of labor within a group would reduce the time required. 5. Most of us have enough experience to know how to be "wet nurse" to ailing plants, or can learn easily enough. 6. "If you haul them, they will come" -- I don't think you will have trouble locating people eager to accept free plants! As it is, I am a one-person operation for my obsession with bargain plants and am therefore almost constantly preoccupied with hauling them and tending to them for hours and hours per week.

So...if you have read through all of that and are still interested in arranging your own "motherlode," here are the tips in regard to prospecting for your own gold mine of plant bargains:

1. The store that is providing me bargain plants at the bulk rate is, of course, Lowe's. Anyone that purchases bargain plants from the "big box" stores probably already guessed that, since Lowe's is about the only store that has a markdown rack for distressed plants.

2. According to the Store Manager at the store I have as my source for the motherlode, Lowe's "does not like to throw away plants." I like that about the store. If they can find someone to haul them off, they are happy (depending on the particular store manager) to make the plants available.

3. You are best to start your search for your own "motherlode" with the garden center manager. I just happened up the bargain one day when at the store. The racks were already packaged and inventoried and marked for $10 each. I've learned the following information about the store policies and procedures as a result of returning week after week, asking questions politely, and listening to the managers and staff discuss the bulk deals: When you talk to the garden center manager, you should ask if they are able to provide "cull packs" for distressed plants they want to move out of the store. This is the store's terminology for the racks of plants. Most often, the store is required (by corporate policies) to first try to sell the plants at a markdown price. If the plants do not sell at the reduced rate, they are then allowed to inventory all the remaining plants by sku number and sell them per rack as "cull packs."

4. The price per rack may vary from store to store. It will be up to the garden manager/store manager to determine at what price they will offer you the racks of "cull packs." The store I visit has a high volume garden center and are thus able to offer the plants at the incredible (to me!) rate of $10 per rack. The racks range in retail value from about $350 to $500. I have, thus far, bought about 20 racks and received about $18,000 in retail value of plants. Please don't insist on getting plants at the same rate by saying something like, "Jeremy in Jacksonville only pays $10 per rack! Why are you asking me to pay $15?!" etc. Such comments may spoil the deal for all of us.

So that we don't interrupt the flow of plant manna for all concerned, I would suggest that everyone that approaches a Lowe's store for a "cull pack" deal observe the following recommended guidelines for attitudes and procedures in dealing with the store staff:

1. Be overly friendly! Learn the names of everyone you deal with (Lowe's employees all wear tags with their first name printed on the tags) and greet them by name each time you return to the store. I've even gone so far as to buy the cashier a taco from a nearby restaurant if she happens to mention she is hungry and hasn't had a break recently.

2. Maintain an attitude of gratitude! Don't look the proverbial horse in the mouth. Accept whatever is on the racks without question. Don't pick and choose what you will take and don't want. Remember, the store is interested in moving the plants out quickly in order to improve the appearance of the garden center. You sometimes will have to haul away plants that are clearly (like my eternal soul) beyond salvation, but you will also sometimes receive completely healthy perennials that have no problem except that they are out of flower or are a bit misshapen or have some other minor cosmetic injury. Don't complain that the racks are not full enough if the bottom or top shelves are left empty. You will probably have more viable plants than you can handle even if the rack is not completely stuffed to overflowing with plants.

3. Be courteous and respect the time and effort the store staff are putting into making the "cull packs" available. In order to move the plants out of the store, the garden manager or appointed garden staff person has to count each potted plant, determine the SKU number, input the information into the store computer regarding the hundreds of "cull pack" plants, print out the list, etc. It is much easier to toss them into a dumpster, so please remember the store staff are making an extra effort to protect the lives of the plants and to make them available to you.

4. Let the store staff, especially the garden manager, know that you are dependable and reliable if you want the plants on a regular basis. Drop in whenever possible and contact the people that you know (at my store it is Zack, John, and Erica) and casually ask when more "cull packs" may be available. Don't be insistent on a certain time or date to pick up the plants, and don't be upset if the plants are not ready if you come at an appointed time and the racks are not yet inventoried and wrapped for pick up. The store staff have many duties and cannot always devote their time to dealing with the "cull packs," especially around the time of holiday weekends, etc. You may be able to establish a routine of coming on a Monday or Tuesday, during an hour when the garden center is least busy, and picking up the plants on a fairly regular basis.

5. Haul away the plants immediately after paying for them or arrange for some out of the way place which is out of the customers sight to leave the plants if you find that you have to make several trips to load all the plants.

6. Be very careful not to interfere with the store's customers and retail sales. Be very observant when moving the large racks in and out of the store so as not to bump into a customer. Return the empty racks to some designated space that is out of the usual foot path of retail customers. You will sometimes have customers stop you (assuming you are a store employee) to ask where they can locate a certain item, or how to tend to a certain plant, etc. If I can answer their question accurately, I answer it. If not, I politely refer them to one of the store staff and make sure they are hooked up with someone from the store that can help them.

7. Be patient during the process required to pay for the "cull packs." I generally take the inventory sheets marked $10 each to the Customer Service desk to pay for them, rather than paying at the garden center register. The head cashiers are generally at the Customer Service desk and there is generally someone immediately on hand to provide the necessary override for the price reduction for the cull packs. The process of locating the "cull pack" inventory sheets in the computer can be a bit daunting for an inexperienced cashier. From what I've learned (and you may surprise the garden manager and cashiers with your savvy by suggesting this), the inventory sheets for the "cull packs" should be listed in the computer as "CW" (I don't yet know what that stands for), and not "For Customer Pick Up." The CW computer system classification makes it possible for the cashier to pull up one number which will provide the inventory page for ALL the plants, and then the cashier can change the entire inventory sheet price to the designated sale price. If the "For Customer Pick Up" designation is used, which seems to be the default designation of the store computer system, then the cashier has to go in and change the price of each of the SKUs for each variety and quantity of plant in order to come up with the final sales price. In the store I visit regularly, I have learned the names of the cashier's (Amy and David) that understand the process required and can help me quickest with checkout. If I happen to run into a cashier at the Customer Service Desk that is clueless of the process required (which is what happened yesterday), I kindly remark that I will return to the garden center and, if there is no long waiting line of customers, ask the garden center cashier (whom is likely to be familiar with the "cull pack" discount check-out) to ring up the cull packs for me. If the store is busy, I let retail customers go first in line. I sometimes suggest that the cashier open up one of the other registers to handle my transaction so that she can go back and forth between my check out and the retail customers' check out and not cause long lines of angry people waiting while I hold up the works with my cull packs check out.

I hope some of you are now jumping into your own old rusty vans and headed to the nearest Lowe's to see if you can become a "cull pack" hauler for the store! I hope also that this explanation alleviates the concerns and criticisms of a few people here that felt I was being unfair, unfriendly, and/or uncooperative in not revealing the source of the 'motherlode' bargain plants. I wanted to make sure, selfish as it may have been, that I had my foot in the door and was sufficiently ensconced with my relationship with the Lowe's store from which I'm receiving "cull packs" prior to broadcasting the details to the world. By doing so, I've been able to keep the supply of plants coming for us all and slowly learn the policy and procedures so that I could more accurately relay the information to those that may benefit from it.

Happy Haulin!

PS --- Do I finally win the Guiness Record for "Longest Post on an Online Gardening Forum" !!??

Jeremy

Naples, FL(Zone 10b)

Wow! That was a long story. being a frequent Lowes' customer I've also run into bargains in the plant department but normally I'm told that distressed plants are being returned for credit to the source. I bought various plants for $.25 in markdowns but never saw a whole rack for sale in any fashion. But I've never gone above the people working in the department. Maybe searching out the manager might help.

My biggest bargains were for paving stones, those big heavy ones that normally cost about $3.50 each. I got several pallets for $.25 each stone. They were used in their displays and they won't sell them as new. They were also first come first served and went rather quickly.

On the other hand, I don't think I can handle the kind of plant volume Jeremy is talking about.

Fred

(Zone 9a)

You probably do hold the record, Jeremy. I wouldn't be able to handle a large plant volume either. I'll watch Lowes for bargins on a smaller scale.

Venice, FL(Zone 9b)

I sure wish I had the time. I'd get 'em home and they'd die here while I drive somebody somewhere.
Maybe in a few years . . .

Thanks for sharing your secret, Jeremy.
I'd love to see what all you've done someday.

Sally

Fort Myers, FL(Zone 10a)

wow! That is awesome! My parents have 5 acres... and I have lots of big trucks.. my dad is a contractor!

maybe I'll try my luck some time!

Thanks for the awesome info!

Lamar, AR(Zone 7b)

Wow what a post, Jeremy. Thanks for the info which is very well written & understandable. I too couldn't do it for many reasons I wouldn't qualify. My yard size for one! LOL

~*~ Suenell

Inverness, FL(Zone 9a)

Jeremy - Great post, very thorough. I don't have enough room to handle the volume, but I still really enjoyed the information you shared with us. d

Dunedin, FL(Zone 10b)

Jeremy excellent posting and you wrote everything up needed for someone to do this ! Great job ! So nice you can do this.
I also would not be able to do this with my health but glad someone nice like you are saving and sharing these plants !
Great work !

Jacksonville, FL(Zone 8b)

Thanks, Violet. I'm just very appreciative to the garden center managers at the Lowe's where I get the bargain plants. They seem to enjoy knowing that the plants will be put to good use, rather than just going to the dumpster, and it saves them effort of having to toss them. I shudder every time I think of all the perfectly usable plants that get tossed daily from other garden centers -- enough to provide plants for all sorts of community projects -- but it seems that corporate waste instead of reuse and recycling is the standard procedure in many aspects of our society.

Jeremy

Lakeland, FL

Well, I have all requirements except for the large vehicle.. The only "dependable" vehicle we have right now is a little hatchback..

Oh, and that whole "polite" thing.. Don't know what that's all about.. = )

Jacquie

This message was edited Jan 11, 2007 8:36 AM

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