Eradicating garden center confusion |

Eradicating garden center confusion

Tom Glass
Vail, CO, Colorado
Tom Glass

We just finished wrapping up the end of the year. Literally, we wrap unsold potted perennials and shrubs in white plastic to await spring. We also await another opportunity to bring gratification to people wanting to have flowers, trees and shrubs, which help bring a measure of completeness to their lives.

Toward that end, I sat today in my little home office and reviewed trade magazines and made notes on what went right and what went wrong this past year. In one of the articles I came across a statistic generated by a magazine that is owned by America’s largest seed company that on one hand didn’t surprise me, yet, on the other hand, totally stunned me.

Fully 70 percent of people shopping for plants enter a garden center completely confused, not knowing what to buy, and then leave in that same condition.

Not coincidentally, leading my list of things to improve is signage. And, although the little tags that typically come with plants are a small storehouse of information, if over half of our customers remain confused as to what to plant, then those little tags aren’t getting the job done. Rest assured, there is no plant retailer that wants their customers to leave as confused as when they arrived.

Last Monday, this newspaper ran four articles pertaining to gardening. There is an entire television network devoted to gardening, and countless gardening magazines and books published each year. With that wealth of information available, one would think there would be a greater understanding of what works in the garden.

The fact of the matter is, gardening is a rat-hole, an endless labyrinthian equation of weather, soil, plant breeding, supply and demand, light, part-shade, and shade, etc, etc. ad infinitum. It’s not exactly war, but it is filled with the known knowns, known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. It is a lifelong study that the deeper one digs, the less one realizes they understand. As rapidly as deer discover that they really like coneflower blossoms, despite the fact the flowers are listed as deer resistant, the target moves and shifts.

So how does one enter a garden center confident that they will leave with the right plants for their situation?

First, arrive with a sense of humor. This is landscaping, not a particularly serious subject. And although you may simultaneously love the concept of perennial plants that come back year after year and desire the look of petunias (an annual plant that dies if left outside during winter), in order to get the best attributes of both types of plants in one plant, you’ll probably have to leave with a perennial geranium that comes in one color of violet blue.

Second, when you walk out your front door in the morning, check to see where the sun is rising. If it’s in front of you, you’re lucky, your house faces east. You can grow almost anything with eastern exposure. If it’s not in front of you, pinpoint which part of your body it is shining on and take note. There will be a quiz at any garden center that requires you to pinpoint where the sun rises in relation to your front door.

Third, complicating matters of direction are the forest and the trees, note where trees cast shade on your property. Shade pretty much eliminates big shows of color and a whole host of plants that you probably want to grow. No amount of blue spruce love will make them grow well in shade.

Fourth, pick your three favorite colors. White doesn’t count. If you know your three favorite colors, it really doesn’t matter because, truth be told, flowers defy the rules of color. They’re just pretty. I’ve met customers that hate red geraniums, or white daisies, vehemently. Okay, but they’re still pretty.

Fifth, show no fear. Plants are, for the most part, portable. You can move them around. You can even move them to your neighbors’ yards, depending upon how much you like or dislike your neighbors.

Sixth, relax. If you’re in a garden center, odds are 7 out of 10 people standing around you are just as confused. Furthermore, the entire horticulture industry is attempting to place their collective knowledge on 1-inch by 3-inch plastic tags and 3-inch by 5-inch note cards. We’ll get the job done. The market potential is huge.

Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments or questions about this column to

Support Local Journalism