had been to all the nurseries and garden centers within a 40-mile radius, searching for a particular petunia without success. And here it was at Lowe's!

Big box stores sometimes offer up such unexpected treasures and at very reasonable prices. If the plants are healthy, you can hardly go wrong with the more common annuals purchased at these stores either. Perennials can be a different story, though, as can some of the lesser known annuals. It pays to be an informed shopper when it comes to purchases at such stores.

Know the Limits

Know the number of the zone you're gardening in. Then look very carefully at perennial plant tags when shopping at big box stores. If you garden in zone 5 and the tag says the plant is hardy only to zone 6 and not farther north , don't buy it unless you're an experienced gardener and have played with microclimates. I've found azaleas, coreopsis, hibiscus, salvia, and penstemon varieties, to mention just a few, for sale at big box stores in zones 4 and 5 with labels that indicated they were not hardy in those zones.

There are other considerations as well. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery puts it best in one of his recent electronic newsletters:

I always like to check out other retailers, especially the box stores to see what they are offering. This spring, I visited one box store and found that 50% of their perennial offerings aren't adapted to our climate. As is usually the case during my current visit last weekend, I found both good and bad. First, delphiniums should not be sold in our part of North Carolina in late May...even as annuals. Ditto for fuchsias...unless they are the heat tolerant types, which these weren't. In the ornamental grass display, there were some nice selections, but annual varieties were mixed in with the perennial grasses. Only when you read the mice type [i.e., small print] on the tags do you notice that certain plants cannot drop below 30 degrees. One of my favorites was the nice display of Colocasia ‘Black Magic', which was a completely different plant, Colocasia ‘Burgundy Stem' with a leaf that will never turn black. With all the problems, they did have a great selection of vegetables. As always, I can't stress enough to shop with folks you trust or become a vigilant consumer.

One of my pet peeves is the overuse of growth regulators to make plants in a retail setting look like something they aren't. While growth regulators certainly have their place as a labor saving tool in ornamental plant production, they are often used to misrepresent how a plant will perform. A key for growers to be able to sell plants to garden centers and box stores, is their ability to keep the plants at a certain height in order to fit them on the shipping racks and make them look nice in the store displays. While most growth regulators will wear off later in the season, it is very important for you to check the tags of the plants you are thinking of purchasing and look at the mature height to see if the plant in question will truly fit your needs. With that said, I'll share a recent conversation shared by nurseryman Lloyd Traven below.

Conversation at Lilytopia yesterday, among 10,000 STEMS of incredible Oriental lilies, many with 12 flowers each a FOOT across, and 4+ feet tall: "What growth regulator can I use to get these less than 18" tall, including pot?" Response from bulb breeder---"WHY would you want to do that? The flowers will shrink to 5", they won't last, and the customer will think they are short varieties." Blank stare from box store grower-- "I need to fit these on a shipping rack, 3 layers minimum, all the same height and size and bloom stage." "Maybe you should look for another product to force into a mold. We worked hard to make these magnificent, and you will make them ordinary."

I want to emphasize the importance of reading plant labels at any plant store, and, as you can see from the comments above, that's especially true at big box stores. Also keep in mind that when you're shopping for plants at a well-regarded local nursery, you have at your disposal the plant knowledge of a well-trained and educated staff. That's usually not the case at big box stores.

Finally-and this holds true wherever you shop for plants-keep in mind that flowering perennials generally have a limited bloom period. If they're already in bloom (and for sales purposes, most of them will be), you may not get much bloom time in your garden. If the perennial naturally blooms for several weeks in summer and you buy it in bloom in the spring, you won't have any flowers left by the time summer arrives.

Being a knowledgeable gardener is the key to becoming a more successful gardener. Image


Endnote: The author's photo of Supertunia 'Raspberry Blast' above was taken in his garden after he found it at Lowe's.