Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fall Clearance? Caveat Emptor!

Happy Labor Day!  Or should I holler out "70% Off!"  Labor Day marks the start of the fall clearance, in which one of our local garden center chains puts everything on sale to move out old inventory, make room for Christmas trees and maybe invigorate the customer for the new season.

Yippee.  Not.

Is this a good deal?  In my opinion, not so much.  Recently I visited one of these garden centers, already 70% off a little before Labor Day.  I looked at annual and seasonal color, perennials, shrubs and trees.  Let me share with you a few of my impressions.

Petra croton.  Originally $19.99.
Zinnia.  $8.99.

Begonia for $8.99.  Shocking.
The annuals and seasonal color were mostly in fairly good shape, but not all of them were 70% off, either.  The crotons were mostly Petra (the most popular variety) and were originally $19.99 and "on sale" for $9.99.  Which would be half price, if anyone ever paid $20 for a lightly-rooted 3-gallon croton.  The zinnias and begonias were pretty and packaged as $8.99 color bowls, with 3 plants in each pot.  The little plants, however, were no bigger than standard 4" nursery pots, which retail at about $1.49 around here.  So,  while they were pretty, the original price should have been closer to $4.50, not $8.99.  It's a decent price, if you get it at $2.70 but I wouldn't call it 70% off.

Coneflowers - $8.99.
Dwarf Mondo - $4.99.
 The perennials and groundcovers were small for the container, but reasonably healthy.  These plants may or may not be a good deal, depending on what you already have.  Personally, I would probably plant 4" dwarf mondo grass instead of the exact same size in a 1-gallon container.  I'd also be more likely to plant perennials from seed this late.  While the perennials were healthy, they were too small to make much of a show.  But you wouldn't be risking much on them either.

Unlike, say, trees and shrubs.  I know many gardeners who get all excited about these 70% off days, because they want to make major purchases at these great sale prices.  If we were only talking about annual color and a few perennials, it probably wouldn't be that big a deal. But shrubs and trees are the foundation of your garden!

Plumbago marked $19.99

Let me start off by saying that I thought the plumbago in 1-gallon containers (for $6.99) and 3-gallon containers (for $19.99) were probably a good deal at 70% off.  I didn't pull the plants out of the pots to check the roots, which I would definitely recommend, but the topside of the plumbago looked healthy.  These plants reliably survive our winters, so I wouldn't worry about planting them this late.  Unlike, say copper plants, acalypha, graphtophyllum, etc.  Unless you need a quick pop of color and you know it will die with the first frost, I would avoid planting tropicals in September.

Sad little shrubs.

The other shrubs were atrocious.  They were uniformly rootbound and girdling.  Most of them had been potted up from 1-gallon containers, and not too well.  You could still clearly see the outline of the 1-gallon pot in the 3-gallon container.  You'll have to take my word for it -- this problem was widespread.  I walked down each row of shrubs and saw the same thing, in all different varieties and all different sizes.  If you're an expert gardener, and you specialize in providing a home for abused and neglected plants like these, be my guest.  If you're a bargain-hunter, take a pass. 

Trees in agony.

And only the toughest, most hard-hearted gardeners should even venture over to the trees.  These trees gave me nightmares.  Plant after plant, they were so rootbound, so girdled, even to the point of encompassing the stake.  There's no telling how long they've been like this.  I hate to think the garden center bought them like this, but you never know.  These trees are doomed.  And a dead tree, even at 70% off, is no bargain.

Indian Hawthorns.  $19.99.  As if.

I'm not a real bargain-hunter.  I don't like garage sales and I don't wait in line for Black Friday specials.  So maybe it's me.  But really.  Think carefully about plants like these before you put them in your garden.  And think carefully about the kind of garden center that would stock them.

I'll end with a note about customer service.  I spent about 45 minutes at this store last week.  I was the only customer.  I took 65 pictures of plants.  There were at least 8 employees on the premises, including a manager.  And no one spoke to me at all, not even to ask me what the heck I was doing taking pictures of roots.  Oh well!  You get what you pay for!


  1. Thanks for doing the first pass shopping for me. Saves me from even considering a stop at the orange umbrella. Also good tips for shopping any vendor of plants. Quite a service, and with photos! xoxo Catherine

  2. They are a marketing machine. Not a word of mouth nursery. I think the most dominant private business of any kind in the Houston area. They turn all the norms of known business practices on it's ear......but are fantastically successful.

  3. Elizabeth, excellent advice! It's worth it in the long run to pay more for strong, properly grown, healthy plants. And I so agree about the 70% marketing ploy. I look at the original prices on pots and scoff. The other large local concern that takes a 70% discount does have people working there who actually know a little about plants. What a novel idea, huh?

  4. When I say fantastically successful I only mean in the monetary sense.

  5. What a terrible thing for a company to do to innocent newby and novice gardeners. Entice them with low prices then sell them junk, and a bad shopping experience to go with it. Real gardeners like you don't need extra service, but imagine the poor souls that are beginners and novices coming home with crap like that and actually expecting it to grow. I have to ask why any vendor could sell to these people with good conscious, but we know there are bad vendors just as there are bad garden centers. Yes, you get what you pay for.

  6. It's hard to believe that anyone would ever shop there more than once, but they must. Not only are they still in business, they appear to be very successful. A bargain's not a bargain, though, if you have to replace it!

  7. I am in the nursery business and I find what this guy does as remarkable. Personally I find it as an insult to today's consumer. Several years ago my neighbor was bragging about the palms he had gotten there for 70% off. The price was barely 10% less than my regular price. I ran in to the guy that owns this place and told him the story and his chuckling reply was "man don't f%*k up my hustle". People ask me all the time why I don't match his sales. PLEASE!! I throw stuff away that looks better than what he sells most of the time at 70% off of some arbitrary price that is clearly not his regular price. If you want good value I would recommend shopping at your local independent nursery.

  8. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you completely. But apparently he has his fans: I noticed a new store being constructed at the corner of US59 and the Beltway on the SW side.

  9. If this is the place I think it is, I bought salvia there several years ago, brough it home, watered it and planted it the very next day. Every single plant died. When I went back to them to complain I was basically told tough luck - no refunds. Any nursery who won't stand by their plants is not worth going to.

  10. LOL! I can tell by your comment on customer service that you wer at Houston Garden Center. I gave up on their poor quality service (and plants) years ago.