A nurseryman's lament

It's a cold, rainy day here in northern California. The perfect opportunity for those of us in the nursery business  to contemplate the future of our trade, and then write about it. The following is a post from Don Shor, a fellow nurseryman who runs The Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, California. It is a wonderful summation of the "IGC (independent garden centers) vs. Box Store" argument.

"An open letter to the Big Box stores, and other non-garden stores, that sell garden supplies.

When I first moved to Davis to go to college, I went out in search of houseplants. There was a little drugstore chain called PayLess Drugs where they would put out displays of little houseplants. Only problem was, they had no way to water them. So we all learned that within 3 to 4 days they would be half off. And half dead. But we could snatch up some great bargains if we timed our visit right.

As a budding (har!) hort student I found this very amusing. Little did I realize it was going to become an industry standard for plant aftercare at many retail establishments that treat plants as commodities rather than as living organisms.

Those plants you are selling took a lot of resources to get to your store. There are breeders and greenhouse managers with a lot invested there. Lots of water and fuel to grow them and get them to you. Pesticides and fertilizers, and growth regulators, and often careful management of lighting and nutrients to induce bloom.

So the least you could do is keep the thing watered for a few days, and put it in the right place.

There are a few basic practices that we as plant-sellers should abide by. These are really ethical standards for our industry.

The plant should be properly labeled.

It should be healthy, free of pests and diseases.

It should be monitored to keep it free of pests and diseases.

It should be watered as often as necessary to keep it vigorous.

It should be displayed in the light that is appropriate to the species.

What you are selling should be appropriate to the season and to the region.

So when I see poinsettias displayed outside in freezing weather in Northern California;

when I see orchids outside on a west-facing wall in full sun in the summer;

when I see house plants displayed among landscape shrubs;

when I see dead plants that could have lived but for a little water;

when I see blighted tomato seedlings;

when I see summer vegetables being sold in February in the Sacramento Valley;

when I see pelargoniums labeled as azaleas:

I want to turn you in to have your License to Sell Nursery Stock revoked.

So your grower guarantees your plants, and doesn't even charge you for them until they sell? The customer doesn’t know that. The novice gardener believes that you are selling a healthy plant that will grow here, at the right season. Your guarantee isn't an excuse either. Our industry prospers when you sell success. A beginning gardener who fails often just gives up.

So here are a few pointers.

Very few landscape plants will live long inside your store. Just a few days in low light (I know it seems bright, but it isn’t from a plant’s perspective) will lead to etiolation: weak growth with thin leaves and stems that are vulnerable to infection.

Plants that require sun in the garden require at least some sun in your outdoor display. Plants that prefer shade will burn in full sun. My, this seems obvious, but it is probably the most common blunder I see.

Tropical plants that aren't hardy in your region should be clearly identified as such and kept separate from those that are hardy. Perhaps you should sell them as houseplants.  It doesn't matter what the label says. Your display is what matters, and the training you give your staff. The customer is counting on you. If they see it outside, they think it grows outside.

Know your seasonal annuals, both flower and vegetable. I know you don’t actually have in-house buyers any more. The mega-growers are deciding what is stocked, and they make their decisions for an entire region. So those snapdragons you are getting in May in the Sacramento Valley? They aren't going to bloom all summer. In fact, they won’t last more than a couple of weeks in 90 degree heat. Nothing wrong with selling them to someone who wants a quick display SO LONG AS THEY KNOW that.

Diseased plants should be removed immediately. Again, I know they aren’t really your plants. The grower is supposed to decide when they get pitched. But he doesn't really have much incentive to do so, does he? So when there are spots on the leaves, remove those from your display. Remove them from where water will splash the fungus spores onto healthy nearby plants. Maybe put them by the dumpster, or some place in back. I’m kind of sick of explaining the disease cycle to your customers after the fact.

Those rolling vertical display units of bedding annuals and ground covers? I call those disease factories. If you wanted to design a perfect way to inoculate young plants with fungus, you couldn’t do a better job.

Let’s see:

o      low light? check.

o      high humidity? check.

o      poor air movement? check.

o      movement of spores in running water? check.

Perfect. A few bits of Pythium or Rhizoctonia on top, overhead watering, drainage from one flat down onto another, and you have successfully spread seedling diseases across the entire display.

It’s ok. The problems from these diseases don’t usually show up until a few days after the plant is infected.

Please treat your plants and your customers with respect. These should not be disposable commodities. But when I hear that 15 to 25% of them get thrown out by the grower, there are being treated as disposable. That isn't good for gardeners or our industry."

Thank you Don.

Don Shor and his family have owned Redwood Barn Nursery, a small retail garden center near downtown Davis California, since 1981.