By Gina K. Briles, Cheapism.com
This time of year, longer days and warmer temperatures prod even novice gardeners to beautify their outdoor spaces. Americans devote about $350 per household to repopulating flowerbeds and tackling other lawn and garden projects, according to the most recent annual survey by the National Gardening Association. Home improvement centers and mass merchants account for just over half the total spending, compared with 17 percent for local garden centers and nurseries. Cheapism.com visited garden centers at four national chains, as well as one local nursery, to compare prices, stock, and service. The one retailer that didn't disappoint on any front was Home Depot, where a wagon full of supplies for a starter garden came to $173.92.Which garden center ranks on top?
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Home Depot didn't record the lowest total for the 14 items on the list, but it came within $2 of Lowe's, where the tab was $172.16, the plant selection was slightly narrower, and the staff was less knowledgeable. Walmart emerged cheaper still, at $164.69, but only because it didn't stock one plant that almost certainly would have made up the difference. In general inventory at Walmart lacked the breadth we saw at the home improvement stores and the staff struggled to provide advice. Kmart offered only about half the requisite items, supplying vegetable seeds and gardening implements but not the desired plants and garden soil. Most prices were competitive but not the lowest.
While a newbie can get a garden going for less than $200 at a big-box store, the same can't be said of our local independent garden center. The total there reached $270.96 for all but one of the supplies (an oscillating sprinkler, which wouldn't be available until later in the season). That's more than $100 beyond what it took to buy identical or similar items from a national chain. Still, many gardening enthusiasts gravitate toward so-called IGCs, citing their commitment to keeping plants healthy, level of customer care, and range of foliage. At our local nursery we found helpful horticulture experts with encyclopedic plant knowledge and a mind-boggling array of flora, although the selection of tools and supplies typically was limited to only a few high-end choices.
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Here's how we ranked the four big-box alternatives:Which garden center do you prefer?
1. Home Depot carried a large selection of trees, plants, and shrubs, and the garden center employees we spoke with were more knowledgeable than their counterparts at the other chains. Patrons of other Home Depot locations corroborate our experience in online reviews, noting the staff's helpfulness and expertise, as well as the store's generous plant return policy.
2. Lowe's fielded friendly and accommodating employees, though they didn't seem as sure or as seasoned as the staff at Home Depot. At one point they consulted a reference book, at a loss for deer-resistant plants to recommend. The selection was respectable but not as deep as Home Depot's. Like its competitor, Lowe's will replace plants that die within a year for customers who bring them back with the original receipt.
3. Walmart's garden center was small and neatly laid out but inadequately staffed. The department's lone employee was friendly and knew the stock but admitted he knew nothing about gardening and pointed us toward a colleague with a green thumb in the electronics department. Walmart was well stocked with garden tools and supplies but low on plant variety and quantity.
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4. Kmart was missing one key component of a garden center: plants. At the start of the season, the only ones to be found were four racks of annuals at the store entrance and a table of plants inside -- no trees, no shrubs, and no perennials. The one employee staffing the area said the plants we needed simply hadn't come in yet. However, a later call to the store revealed they still hadn't arrived and gave us no reason to expect they would. Kmart's afterthought of a garden center annex was sparsely populated with tools, mowers, grass seed, and other gardening basics.
Of course, the customer experience may differ by location, although national brands generally strive for uniformity. Where do you prefer to get your plants?
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