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Which Is The Best Budget Gardening Center?

Just before the official onset of spring, we set out to find the best cheap garden center. We visited four national retail chains with dedicated garden centers and one large, independently owned nursery to see how far a limited budget (maximum $200 for a starter set of foliage and supplies) would take us.

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We found that prices at the chain garden centers are similar, but product variety and employee expertise range from broad and deep to narrow and shallow. The local nursery bested the competition in staff knowledge and plant/tree/shrub inventory but lagged in tools and garden supplies and far exceeded the chains in price.

At the conclusion of our field-test comparison, Home Depot proved to be the best garden center. Prices at this home improvement store cum horticulture hub may not be the lowest, but it strikes a good balance between fair pricing and substantial selection. Lowe's garden center was our second-choice pick, with slightly lower prices than Home Depot but less experienced employees and less extensive product offerings. Walmart would have been a contender had the call been based strictly on price -- about $10 less than the total outlay for a similar selection (minus one shrub) of garden supplies at Home Depot and Lowe's -- but a limited array of plants and nearly nonexistent staffing kept it off our list of best garden centers.

Kmart was by far the least impressive garden center we visited. A measly display of plants, picked-over tools and supplies, and wet-behind-the-ears employees prompted some uncertainty about whether this store does, in fact, field a garden center. The hometown nursery, meanwhile, wowed us with acres of plant options and a staff peopled with expert horticulturists. Not surprisingly, the plants and supplies cost nearly twice as much as similar items sold by the best garden centers, making it an unlikely destination for frugal shoppers. As newbie gardeners, we also found the dizzying array of shrubs, trees, and flowers a little overwhelming but the tool and supply options relatively thin. If gardening is your thing and your budget is flush, however, independent garden centers are worth a visit. They often carry larger and healthier plants, shrubs, and trees, as well as some unusual varieties, and may provide more customized services.

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At each garden center we approached an employee, advertising our inexperience, and sought advice on what to plant, when to plant, and how to maintain the garden. We explained that we had a partial shade garden with afternoon sunlight, preferred low-maintenance vegetation, and needed deer-resistant plantings. After completing our research, we assessed prices, product selection and guarantees, staff responsiveness and expertise, and gardening services.

The common elements among the staffs' recommendations yielded a 14-item list of seeds, plants, tools, and garden soil. The frugal gardener's shopping basket at each garden center held similar but not identical items: at Lowe's, for example, a 50-foot light-duty garden hose by Swan versus a 50-foot medium-duty hose by Colorite Water Works at Home Depot; a 1-pint primrose at Walmart and the two top garden centers and a 4-inch-diameter primrose at the hometown nursery, while Kmart stocked no primroses at all. Prices varied by vendor, totaling $173.92 at Home Depot, $172.16 at Lowe's, $164.69 at Walmart, $54.29 at Kmart (six items, including five plants and garden soil, were not available the day we shopped), and $270.96 at the locally-owned garden center.

Granted, the data reflect our experience with one outlet for each of the four best garden centers and one particular independent operation, rounded out by a thin supply of online reviews. But given that the chain store business model calls for a high level of uniformity from location to location and privately owned stores are quirky by nature, we believe our findings are fairly representative of what frugal gardeners will encounter this spring.

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by Gina Briles (Google+ Profile)

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