There is a romance to a small local nursery. The snug, homey feel, the secret corners, the folks who light up when you come in and actually know what pH is and what variety of fig grows best in your part of the county.
And then there are big box nurseries. Not terribly romantic, but usually organized, well-stocked, and affordable.
I don’t come down hard on either side of the #ShopLocal versus corporate overlord debate. In my experience, they both have something to offer the average HomeDabbler.
Here are my suggestions for what to buy where.
Local nursery (or farm and garden) hands down, especially for vegetables. In short, a carrot is not a carrot is not a carrot. You need seeds that want to grow in your area and microclimates and those conditions can change in a matter of a few miles. Your local nursery, if they know what they are doing, will have bought their seeds wholesale from a distributor in the region, they will ask you some questions about your soil and light conditions, what part of town you live in, and will give you just the right seeds for your spot.
The big boxes, because of their size and range, send seeds to your local location that supposedly grow well in, say, the South. Well, I live in North Florida, on the border of zone 8. But if I lived close to the Gulf of Mexico, just 10 miles from my house, it’s more like zone 9. So can I grow broccoli or not?
Your big box will not have the answer to this. Your nursery will. Also, vegetable seeds are WAY cheaper at your local nursery.
If we’re talking annual landscape flowers, the big box wins this one. Because they do volume wholesale buys, and because you will normally buy a few pallets of annuals at a time, there is a significant cost savings buying at the big box. Also, annual flowers are not as finicky about growing conditions as vegetables are. The impatiens that will grow in your yard will usually grow 50 miles away, in a completely different zone.
In other words, it’s not that important that your supplier have local knowledge or expertise here. And, if your annuals don’t work, they’ll be dead at the next frost anyway. Try again next year.
This is a mixed bag. My advice is that for your standard landscape perennials – hedges, border grasses, etc. – the big boxes are pretty reliable, especially if you are installing a new landscape and a lot of plants at once. The big box will have more plants cheaper, usually in stock when you need them. Most perennials like this will also grow over a larger region, so locality is not as much of an issue.
Another advantage is that the big boxes usually offer a no-questions-asked one year return policy. And if you lose five azaleas in one winter, for instance, that is over $100 you’ll get back. Locals simply can’t afford to offer this kind of deal.
When it comes to house plants, however, you might want to visit the local nursery. They will likely have more variety and usually have some special species you won’t find anywhere else. And because perennials from local shops are a little more expensive, if you’re just buying a couple house plants it is not that big a deal.
DON’T. BUY. TREES. AT. THE BIG BOX. Especially fruit trees. Just like with seeds, local conditions really matter with trees and the big boxes are very poor at gauging this correctly. They routinely stock trees that will not grow well long-term in the areas where they are sold.
Again, I’m in Florida. You’d think (and the big boxes seem to) that because I’m in Florida I can grow citrus, so their nurseries are full of them. But I live in North Florida and there are only a handful of citrus varieties that grow reliably here, and not even the good ones. We can’t even grow real oranges for goodness sake.
Now if you move here from Michigan and want to plant a small citrus grove on your property, you’re in for a shock come winter. A good local nursery would never let that happen to you.
Trees are expensive and they will hopefully be in your yard for a lifetime. Always remember, right plant right place. Let a knowledgeable local help you choose the right trees and your grandchildren should find shade under them.
So there you are. I hope this helps. Now go plant something!