Best Garden Center

By the time spring arrives most of us are ready to emerge from indoor hibernation. Whether you're an avid gardener or a novice cultivator, sprucing up your little plot of earth is a rewarding way to celebrate longer and warmer days. After the dull greys and browns of the cold weather season, the best garden centers promise the advent of colorful buds and blooms. While it's easy to spend big bucks on mature plants and trees, single-purpose tools, and decorative containers, sticking to basics and following a few simple guidelines brings gardening well within reach.

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. 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.

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.

Cheap Gardening

Cheap gardening centers offer budget prices on a wide assortment of foliage, back their products with some type of guarantee, and field employees with a working knowledge of gardening tips. All these factors carried weight in our analysis of garden supply stores.

Cheap Garden Center Prices.

Of the five garden centers we explored, Walmart posted the cheapest prices for eight of the 13 items we wanted -- seed packets, heather and lithodora plants, and trowel and bypass pruner. The bottom line at Walmart came to $164.69 compared with $155.68 at Lowe's and $164.95 at Home Depot for the same set of plants, seed packets, and gardening supplies. But Home Depot and Lowe's carry a shrub that appeared on our list and was unavailable at Walmart; adding that in brought the total to $172.16 at Lowe's and to $173.92 at Home Depot. The superstore's cheap gardening center doesn't offer as many varieties of shrubs and flowers, but it does carry many of the most popular plants and a solid selection of gardening and outdoor supplies.

The receipt total of $54.29 was the lowest at Kmart by far, but that tally reflects a very limited inventory. Many items we found at the four other cheap gardening centers were not in stock the day we shopped at Kmart. In a side-by-side price comparison of items available at Walmart and Kmart, however, the former retained its cheapest-price edge: $41.96 for three types of seeds (tomato, cucumber, and zucchini) and a rake, hose, oscillating sprinkler, trowel, and bypass pruner, compared with $54.29 for a similar selection at Kmart (the hose and trowel were cheaper at Kmart).

With a final tally of $270.96, the family-owned nursery in our Seattle suburb proved to be the priciest garden center. (This total does not include an oscillating sprinkler, which cost less than $7 at the four other garden centers but won't be in stock here until late spring or early summer.) While online reviews posted at Yelp rave about the superior selection and quality of plants on offer here, customers do grumble about the high prices.

Cheap Garden Center Supplies.

The selection and quality of plants, shrubs, and trees at the independent nursery exceeds what we found at the four other garden centers. Here we walked among tables and open spaces filled with hundreds of perennials, annuals, herbs, and shrubs. Whereas Home Depot and Lowe's each filled one greenhouse with plants, the local operation filled several and spilled out onto a rambling expanse of paved outdoor space. We had no trouble piling a virtual wagon with thriving exemplars of items on our shopping list -- rhododendron, heather, daphne, lithodora, and primrose -- in addition to starter seeds.

Comments posted on Yelp confirm our overall assessment of this operation, with some extolling the health and longevity of the flora and others welcoming the array of native specimens, which are not generally available at chain garden centers in the area. Still, several home gardeners reported as much success with big-box and hardware-store plants. And while further online sleuthing uncovered a strong culture of garden enthusiasts lauding the virtues of independent garden centers, such operations are not immune to criticism. In an open letter on the blog Garden Rant, for example, a writer laments the lackluster plant quality she has come across at local nurseries.

Although the plantings in our hometown nursery were certainly dazzling, the tool and supply section was disappointing. We found only two garden hose choices, neither of which was the standard 50-foot size carried by the large chain garden centers. In general, the small selection of gardening supplies was limited to high-end brands -- no Miracle-Gro here -- and within each category there weren't many to choose among.

The cheaper gardening centers at Home Depot and Lowe's offer a good, basic assortment of plants suited to our area's planting zone and the largest selection of the tools and supplies on our list (pruner, trowel, sprinkler, hose, rakes, and garden soil). The days we visited, Home Depot and Lowe's were selling only one or two varieties of rhododendron compared with the dozen available at our hometown nursery, although we found sufficient plants of every variety, including those on our list, needed to establish a standard garden. Of the two, it seemed that Home Depot carried more shrub and flower options than Lowe's. On the other hand, some Lowe's shoppers assert in reviews at Yelp that a garden center in California is better stocked than the one at a nearby Home Depot. Another customer likes the sale prices at an Illinois Lowe's but gripes about the absence of native species and weak plantings that don't flourish.

At Walmart, the choice set for gardening tools and supplies is reasonable, as are the prices. What Walmart lacks, however, is the variety of plantings we encountered at the best garden centers. For example, we were unable to locate a daphne shrub that Lowe's, Home Depot, and the local nursery all carried and spotted only one or two types of any given plant; many varieties weren't represented at all. Some gardeners' reviews, including one at Yahoo Answers and several at Dave's Garden, warn that plant quality at Walmart garden centers can be poor (e.g., diseased, not well maintained, requiring several seasons to fully "take") and items may be mislabeled. Other reviewers, however, are satisfied with their purchases.

Kmart was the big loser in terms of selection. A sparse greenhouse annex served as the garden center, but it contained no plants. We were told that the plants hadn't arrived yet and were directed to the front of the store, where we spied four display racks of outdoor plants (pansies, violas, and alyssums) and one minimally filled table of vegetable plantings. Our desired plants still hadn't made an appearance when we followed up later by phone and the call gave us no reason to believe they would be coming at all. The selection of tools and supplies, as well, was less than sparse. We noted bags of Miracle-Gro potting soil but were informed that Miracle-Gro garden soil, a product the best garden centers sell in abundance, was out of stock; the department's solitary employee did not know when more would be available. A search through the garden tools turned up a single choice for both trowel and bypass pruner. We looked for online feedback that might indicate whether our experience was typical but did not find any reviews of Kmart garden centers.

Gardening Center Advice

In need of well-informed gardening tips, we peppered garden center employees with questions. To be sure, there is a certain amount of serendipity in who happens to be on the floor on any given day, but it's probably fair to say that the more knowledgeable the staff, the more committed the retailer to the business of gardening. That caveat aside, we found that some garden center employees were far more knowledgeable than others. Top marks for helpful gardening center advice go to Home Depot and our hometown garden center.

At the far end of the spectrum are the "horticulture experts" we met at the local nursery. The woman at the information desk seemed hesitant when she realized our novice status but quickly warmed to the topic when we broached the subject of plants for our yard. She rattled off both the Latin and common names of various shrubs and flowers and spoke from memory about the sun and water needs of each. As she guided us through a labyrinth of greenhouses and outdoor displays, she educated us about which plants paired well together, how big they would grow, and what the blooms and leaves looked like throughout the year. All told, she spent about 45 minutes touring us through the garden center and answering questions confidently and in detail. She also recommended online resources and books with additional gardening tips.

Home Depot advertises that garden center employees attend training on planting and landscaping and that a certified nursery consultant is always available to customers. What this means, however, is open to interpretation. A post on Garden Rant catalogs instances when the training apparently failed to impart constructive gardening tips. The employee we spoke with lacked the encyclopedic knowledge shown by our guide at the independent garden center but had practical knowledge in spades. An older woman with a lifetime of gardening experience, she insisted on walking us through gardening tips basics despite our eagerness to jump into plant recommendations. She stressed the importance of determining soil quality, explained how to prepare beds for planting based on the consistency of the earth, and suggested we check out yards in our neighborhood to gather ideas about which plants we preferred. She also covered some simple guidelines, such as planting in odd numbers, staggering plants for texture, and limiting the use of annuals, which she considers a waste of money given their short lifespan and heavy demands for care.

The staffs at Lowe's, Walmart, and Kmart, on the other hand, instilled less confidence. Most of the gardening center advice on offer at Lowe's came from a saleswoman who had learned through trial and error what worked and what didn't. Still, we wondered about some of her gardening tips. She suggested several part-shade plants despite the presence of afternoon sun, whereas another Lowe's staffer indicated that full-sun plants were a better option because afternoon sun is intensely hot. When we asked which plants were unlikely to attract deer, the employees referred to a reference book the store keeps on hand.

The garden center worker we met at Walmart was not a gardener but was familiar with the stock. He urged us to return another day to speak with the "plant expert" and then prompted us to seek out an employee in the electronics department who happened to be a knowledgeable gardener. Indeed, her tips proved helpful. She recommended watering in the evening because doing so in the heat of day can burn the plants; advised how and when to incorporate new soil; and explained there is no such thing as a truly deer-resistant plant, which makes deer repellent a critical garden supply.

We received the least helpful service at Kmart. We didn't test the lone employee's stock of gardening tips because there wasn't much plant or supply inventory to ask about. When we spotted the Miracle-Gro potting soil and asked about Miracle-Gro garden soil, he said he thought it was sold out and wasn't sure if or when it would be restocked. The worker was certainly friendly enough but didn't offer to research the questions he couldn't answer. The lack of online reviews for Kmart garden centers left us without outside input against which to assess our experience.

Gardening Center Services

Garden Center Customer Service.

At each garden center we visited, we timed how long it took for an employee to offer assistance. We were prepared to wait 15 minutes before actively seeking customer service and were surprised to receive barely any spontaneous offers of help at the five sites.

During our visit to Lowe's, an employee at the cash register smiled as we entered the covered outdoor area but remained at her post. The only salespeople we encountered in the plant section wore "vendor" badges and were stocking plants. When we finally approached the cashier for garden center customer service, she explained she couldn't stray far from the register but tried to answer our questions before finally paging someone else to help.

Upon entering Home Depot's outdoor garden shop we were greeted within 30 seconds but then left alone to browse. No one asked if we needed anything, but employees were readily at hand and responsive when help was requested. When we entered the indoor section of the garden center, we were offered customer service almost on the spot.

The Walmart garden center was devoid of staff, both indoors and out. We didn't spy a single associate but were approached by a customer who shared some gardening tips. When we finally sought assistance, we stumbled on the lone department employee stocking flower bulbs. He graciously pointed us to the employee in the electronics department who knew something about gardens.

At Kmart we immediately ran into the single salesman working the tiny garden center. We didn't wait for him to offer customer service because we were confused by the absence of vegetation. The worker insisted this Kmart maintains a garden center but explained that the store hadn't received any plants yet and he didn't know the delivery schedule. He directed us to a very small, covered outdoor space filled with tools and garden supplies. Save for a dozen or so vegetable plants, the only visible outdoor plants we saw were four racks of pansies, violas, and alyssum by the store's front entrance.

Our experience with garden center customer service at the local nursery was similar to that of the retail chains in that we were left to browse in peace and initiate contact with an employee when help was needed. This nursery was many times the size of the other garden centers we visited and fielded relatively more personnel; someone was right there awaiting our cry for gardening tips. Another welcome feature was the information desk, staffed by experts who knowledgably answered questions.

Garden Center Guarantees.

It may come as a disappointing shock to novices, but veteran gardeners know that some plants simply fail to thrive. To ease the pain, the best garden centers provide some type of guarantee, usually offering to replace a perennial plant, shrub, or tree that didn't take within the first year. The garden center guarantee at our local independent garden center covers outdoor trees and shrubs. Customers can request a replacement for any reason but must bring the original along with the receipt; if the item is unavailable, a store merchandise credit is issued. Lowe's also offers a one-year replacement guarantee that covers perennials in addition to trees and shrubs. Again, customers are required to dig up and return the plant (or at least part of it) along with the original receipt (without a receipt, the labeled original container may pave the way).

The Garden Web reports that Home Depot maintains garden center guarantees similar to that of Lowe's, but we were unable to find an official policy on the retailer's website. One customer review at Home Improvement & Construction (where Home Depot has sponsored posts) reports a pleasant experience returning dead trees, a process facilitated by producing receipts, hanging SKU tags, or labeled pots. A call to our nearby store confirmed this information and further revealed that refunds and store credit are also granted.

As for Walmart, the website was silent about any guarantee for plant products and calls to several Walmarts produced several different answers. Ultimately, a manager informed us that Walmart keeps the return window open for 90 days on perennials and annuals and one year for trees and shrubs. Problem plants must be brought to the store, along with the original receipt, to qualify for a refund. We didn't find any online indication of a Kmart pledge to replace unsuccessful plantings, either, but a direct query determined that indoor and outdoor plants can be returned for replacement within 30 days, accompanied by the physical evidence and a receipt.

Garden Center Services.

None of the home and garden stores we visited offer landscaping or garden design services, although employees with differing degrees of expertise can offer a modicum of advice.

Staffers at the independent garden center's information booth, for example, fall way short of providing full garden design guidance but do offer custom container-planting services, and the retailer can arrange flowers or potted plants for a wedding. Home Depot and Lowe's offer gardening resources online and in-store. At the Lowe's site we found articles about pruning basics, choosing the right plants and shrubs for the available space, and caring for the lawn, as well as mulch and fertilizer calculators. Home Depot provides online guidance about adding mulch to beds, educational videos, and other how-to guides. At Home Depot, Lowe's, and the local nursery we saw signs advertising in-store gardening workshops but did not come across any such offerings at Kmart or Walmart.