Why Can’t We Be Friends?

October 17, 2013 | By | Comments (29)
Garden centers

Owned by one of my oldest friends, Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery is just one of many fine independent garden centers in Birmingham. Photo: Steve Bender

One of Grumpy’s greatest talents is his ability to offend great numbers of people, sometimes unintentionally. And, boy, did he do it big time in last Sunday’s blog post (“5 Gardening Mistakes to Avoid This Fall”). Although regular readers didn’t find fault with it and indeed found the information timely and helpful, many independent (“Mom & Pop”) garden centers launched a firestorm of protest over remarks they unfortunately interpreted as favoring big box stores over the little guy. OK. Let’s talk. 

A Little Housekeeping
Let me begin by explaining a few things. Number one, my foremost allegiance is to loyal readers of Southern Living and the “Grumpy Gardener,” not to any business, large or small. My readers are primarily beginning gardeners who want answers to such basic questions as: “How do I prune a crepe myrtle?” “Is now a safe time to transplant?” “Why didn’t my hydrangea bloom?” “What grass grows well beneath a big Southern magnolia?” (None.) Each and every question they ask, whether it goes on this blog or not, receives a personal response. I must do a pretty good job of answering their questions, because well over one million people view my blog each year. Yes, I’m often a smart ass, but apparently readers like it. They’ve kept reading for three decades.

Number two, I am now aware that independent garden centers reserve the title “local garden center” for themselves, denying it to garden centers at big box stores that nevertheless sell lots of plants.

Newsflash! All consumers want is a good plant at a good price. If they can it get at a small independent garden center, fine. If they can get it at a big box, fine. So when I wrote “local garden center,” I meant both independents AND big boxes.

Number three, during my time writing for Southern Living, it has always been my goal to instill in readers both a love of plants and the confidence they can succeed with them — for if they succeed, they’ll plant more and buy more. This means more revenue for the green industry — independent garden centers and big boxes alike. That’s a good thing, right?

Mea Culpa
I’m sorry if independents interpreted my remarks to mean that many of them sell unhealthy plants crawling with bugs. Reputable, professionally run garden centers certainly do not — I’m talking about garden centers like yours, Al Krismer, Andi Parr, Kris Blevons, and Tina Bemis. And I admit my dismissal of balled-and-burlapped trees did not take into account some advantages these trees have over container-grown trees (such as larger sizes available, soil being more like the soil they’ll be planted in, and no problems with potbound roots). I prefer container-grown trees, but consumers may decide differently.

Let’s Ask the Consumer
To gauge the public’s opinion on the Mom & Pop vs Big Box issue, I asked the following questions on my Grumpy Facebook page. “When you buy plants, do you buy them only at independent garden centers, only at big box stores, or at both places? Why?”

So far, I’ve received more than 150 responses from all over. These are typical.

“Both. I buy whatever catches my eye.” — Ingrid 

“If I need bulk annuals, the big box store is usually cheaper. For something a little different, I go to an independent garden center.” — Kathy 

“Both, but I prefer local/independent nurseries, since I’m frequently looking for unusual varieties. Condition comes first, then price. But I have bought discounted perennials at a big box late in the season and babied them over the winter.” — Suzanne 

“Both. Depends on where I am and what I see that looks good and healthy.” — Donna

 “Both. We purchase annuals at big box stores due to the price. Biennials, perennials, succulents, shrubs, ornamentals, trees, straw mulch, etc. we purchase at independent garden centers due to varieties, guarantees, quality, and service.” — Sharon

 “Both. Impulse buy at big stores…planned buys from independents.” — Gail 

“All three (including online). Not one single place has everything I am looking for, plus I am usually comparison shopping for variety, quality and price. Indies often have a better selection, while boxes generally have better pricing.” — Katie 

“Both! Price and selection pay a part. Since I am a novice gardener I do not want to spend a fortune as I learn.” — Elizabeth 

“Is independent garden center a new term for nursery?” — Tami

“The big box stores get my business when I want staples like potting soil, common containers, filler plants, etc. I have to travel a ways to find an IGC, which is where I find unusual plants or pots.” — Kylee

I don’t want to make any more blanket statements, but it seems that the average consumer prefers peaceful coexistence. So do I. I therefore offer up this classic video to all those who took my words the wrong way.

Good Places to Buy Plants
For those of you who live in the Birmingham, AL metro area, Grumpy wholeheartedly recommends the plants and products at the following independent garden centers.

Andy’s (two locations)
Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery
Collier’s Nursery
Hanna’s Garden Shop
Leaf N Petal (several locations)
Myers Plants & Pottery
Oak Street Garden Shop
Petals From the Past
Sweet Peas Garden Shop


  1. Steve Bender

    My final word on what makes a “local garden center” local — it’s whatever the consumer thinks it is. Not the seller. Most consumers think any place nearby that sells plants is a “local garden center.” Stop arguing with your consumer. They don’t care if you hate Home Depot. Instead, focus on your own business and start meeting their needs.

    October 22, 2013 at 9:59 am
  2. Wall Flower Studio

    An interesting analysis of at the Garden Writers profession. It might be well worth noting the information in the first paragraph for any person who does this for a living. http://agnews.tamu.edu/saas/papermg.htm

    October 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm
  3. Dea

    In the Houston area, there are several LGC’s (as the Mom & Pops insist on being called), Cornelius and Plants for All Seasons being probably the two best in my opinion. Since Teas closed, it’s either those two or the BBS (big box store). But I would never, NEVER buy roses in Texas from a BBS. Go to Tyler; go to Palestine; or go to Brenham; or order online from the Antique Rose Emporium. Get a rose that is grown for the climate!

    October 20, 2013 at 8:33 pm
  4. Gern Blanston

    Are Southern Living plants available at the discount chain store nurseries?

    October 20, 2013 at 5:09 pm
  5. Charlie Thigpen

    Thanks for the mention of us in your article!

    October 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm
  6. Happy Gardener

    Ditto 02, local is considered 25 to 30 miles or less. Many farmers markets have this written into their by-laws here in Ohio. 80 miles is stretching it a bit.

    October 19, 2013 at 11:14 am
  7. Happy Gardener

    Carol I might add you know nothing about how HD sells their plants. It is done by pay and scan. Basically the wholesalers are only paid for what HD sells. Your comment makes no sense. HD does not buy from local garden shop and plant farmers (whatever they are), but in most cases on the East Coast and parts of the Midwest from Bell Nurseries.

    October 19, 2013 at 11:12 am
  8. ditta02

    80 miles! Let’s gather a little perspective…If you live in Connecticut then yes 80 miles seems far, but in the southern states 80 miles is well within state limits. So, yes I consider it local when it comes from my state, or 80 miles away to the north in Kentucky. Why? Because my local mom and pop store does not get local plants, unless you consider Monrovia local.

    October 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm
  9. Happy Gardener

    Carol, our local HD gets there plants from a grower 80 miles away. Is that considered local?

    October 18, 2013 at 4:46 am
  10. jmay

    @carol1016, Really? Complete ignorance! Yes, Steve, we know you are moderating comments!

    October 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm
  11. carol1016

    I think if mom & pops had their facts straight they would know that Home Depot gets their garden center plants from local vendors. The plants aren’t even part of HDs inventory, they sell on behalf of the local garden shops, plant farmers, etc and HD gets a % of the sale.

    October 17, 2013 at 9:14 pm
  12. peg davenport

    bingo! i had a feeling that your use of the term “local garden center” meant independent AND big box! i have purchased wonderful plants at both & i have also wound up with problematic plants from both. stuff happens!!!

    October 17, 2013 at 7:24 pm
  13. Jenny Nybro Peterson

    Hey Grumps! As you know, I have been reading your column for years, since I was a young mother and newbie gardener. Your wit and sarcasm are a part of what I love about your writing style, and you are the single biggest influence in my own garden writing career. I also still learn a lot from you about plants and gardening — so thank you SO MUCH for all of your writings over the years, and for encouraging all of us to be the best gardeners we can be. Mwah!!

    October 17, 2013 at 3:58 pm
  14. Southern Living Article Stirs Garden Retailers’ Ire | Today's Garden Center

    […] his follow up post on October 17, Bender focused on if consumers shop at both mass merchants and independent garden centers. He […]

    October 17, 2013 at 3:19 pm
  15. Pam Parson

    I love your column and appreciate you! People are so ready to pounce on anything they perceive to be an insult, you showed a lot of class with your response 🙂

    October 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    And many thanks, faithful readers, for your kind words of support. You know what I stand for and that YOUR interests are always #1 on my list.

    October 17, 2013 at 2:42 pm
  17. Steve Bender


    Go ahead and plant your Tropicanna now. It’s winter-hardy where you are.

    October 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm
  18. Steve

    I, too, shop at both independent garden centers and big box stores. If I need a carload of mulch or groundcovers, I usually head to Lowes where they can afford to sell them at lower prices. If I want something special (and these are the bulk of my purchases, mind you) I seek them out at independent garden centers and nurseries wherever I travel. My advice to struggling IGC’s is to stop fighting the big box stores and start offering things that only you can offer. Give gardeners your support, experience, enthusiasm – and of course, plants that blow big box offerings out of the water.
    Ps. Not once did I see you mention IGC’s, grumpy. You said ‘local garden center’, a term that could be applied to any local garden center. My local garden center is a Lowes, but I happily make the trip for what the good IGC’s have to offer.

    October 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm
  19. VB

    Well said!!

    October 17, 2013 at 1:34 pm
  20. Maxine Knight

    Mollie, and D. Waters are right on! As a senior gardener, I require customer service and am willing to pay the extra, if necessary.

    October 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm
  21. Chelle Ellis

    Oh Grumpy, you amuse me so, thanks for the Muppet murder! I use all three options for the same reasons – mainly, as someone else mentioned – no one place has everything I need. And if you are into orchids, like me, none of them do past phalaenopsis and half dead cattleyas/epi-cats. Dare I mention the fourth, and my favorite, option? Trading/buying plants from local master gardener groups. Those are the plants I find are generally most healthy.

    October 17, 2013 at 12:26 pm
  22. Susanne Bunch

    Dear Grumpy, As always, I enjoyed your column. I interpreted your term as referring to either big box or small independent nurseries. Thank you for your diplomatic efforts to calm the waters. The Muppet clip was a humorous addition. Perhaps you could offer your skills and share your video with those in Washington?!!

    October 17, 2013 at 12:25 pm
  23. Mollie

    “This means more revenue for the green industry — independent garden centers and big boxes alike. That’s a good thing, right?” <– not necessarily.

    If the boxes are more and more successful, what's to say they won't be running the smaller independents out? Especially in smaller towns where there may be only one or two independent garden centers. How are the independents supposed to compete with boxes on price? Consumers really need to start comparing apples to apples on this one; yes, maybe you can get that Rose at XYZ Box store for $10, but is it the same size pot? Was the plant GROWN in your zone? Is the plant itself the same size? Is it the same variety? In my experience, these answers are usually no, or I don't know.

    D. Waters (above) hit the nail on the head; " The manager of the independent is very helpful with advice and suggestions; I don’t dare ask a big box employee because I know they have no clue." So you save, $5. Wouldn't you rather know that the plant that you choose, or you got help choosing, is the right one for your space, will weather the cold, the deer won't eat it… and so on… independents strive for quality and knowledge.

    You wouldn't go to the grocery store pharmacy with a broken bone would you?

    My two cents.

    October 17, 2013 at 12:13 pm
  24. Maxine Knight

    M. Knight
    I have a large Tropicanna in a pot that needs to go in the ground. Do I transplant now or wait till Spring. Thanks, keep up the good work, you are the best in my opinion…you and my Mississippi pal Felder Rushing…

    October 17, 2013 at 12:04 pm
  25. Beth Cawein

    You say your readers are primarily beginning gardeners, but I believe you have a very large following of seasoned gardeners, like me, who enjoy your writing for your wit and view of the world. Keep it up! Controversy can be fun!

    October 17, 2013 at 11:27 am
  26. D. Waters

    Your column is one of my favorites in Southern Living. I have learned many valuable tips about gardening by reading your grumpy words. As with many others, I buy from both the big boxers and the independent nurseries, depending on what I need. My local independent carries wonderfully unusual plants that the big box stores never have. And the quality of their plants is far higher than the big box. The manager of the independent is very helpful with advice and suggestions; I don’t dare ask a big box employee because I know they have no clue. I buy tools and supplies from the big box, and if I need massive amounts of common plants like impatiens, I get those there too. But I spend the bulk of my gardening budget at the independent. I say thank God for both!

    October 17, 2013 at 11:17 am
  27. Debbie Wilburn

    I just read both of your articles and I do not see once where you mentioned independent small garden centers or big box. You were talking about either or all. Sometimes people read what they “think” they see. But hey, you got feedback that they are reading.

    October 17, 2013 at 10:42 am
  28. Frances S. Hughes

    Grumpy, I love your work. I buy my plants at Four Seasons, here in Selma, as a rule. Once in a blue moon I do go to Petals from the Past up in Jemison, which is always fun!

    October 17, 2013 at 9:53 am
  29. Cathey H

    Hang in there, Grumpy! I enjoy your blog.

    October 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

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