March 3, 2009

Temptation at the Big Box

Piles of snow still dot the Spokane landscape, but Big Box retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot, WalMart and Costco have set out their bareroot and summer-blooming bulb displays. The brightly colored packages are all too tempting while my garden features just two colors: brownish-grey and greyish-brown.
Last year a couple of friends and I purchased quite a selection from the bareroot/bulb section, with mixed results. Here are a few of the lessons we learned:
1. SAVE YOUR RECEIPT. It's a risky business to pull tender roots out of the soil, package them in a bit of peat moss, store them in a warehouse, ship them across the country and then keep them in warm retail stores for weeks (months?) on end. Yes, the prices are a bargain. But there is a definite risk of failure, so keep your receipt in case the plants die.
2. THINK LIKE A RABBIT. You may not be able to see the tuber inside the bag, but you can probably feel it. Peony and dahlia tubers should feel firm, like the type of carrot you'd want to eat. They shouldn't be dried out into hard sticks, or shriveled into soft lumps, or rotten into icky-squishy mush. This applies to iris rhizomes, lily bulbs, and hosta/daylily roots as well.
3. BEWARE OF MISLABELING. It's hard to tell a 'Guacamole' hosta from a 'Patriot' hosta when looking at just the roots. It's very easy to tell them apart when they're leafed out. Last year I bought 6 bareroot 'Minuteman' hostas. Only one of them ever came up - in July - and it wasn't 'Minuteman.' Thankfully I brought my crinkled and battered receipt back to Lowe's and received a refund.
4. GET THEM IN THE GROUND ASAP. The longer a plant is out of the ground, the greater the danger of it drying out and dying. Keep bareroots stored in a cool place until you can plant them, which hopefully will be soon after purchase. The bareroot daylilies and siberian irises that I've ordered online came with instructions to soak them in lukewarm water for an hour or two as soon as they were received. That technique might increase your success with big box bareroots as well.
5. IMPATIENCE NOW WILL REQUIRE PATIENCE LATER. It's tempting to buy bareroot now, before the potted plants are available. But the bareroot versions are often tiny and take a long time to get established and start growing. The potted versions are probably more expensive, but you'll get more plant for your money.

With these caveats in mind, buying bareroot can be very economical - if you're patient (and if you save your receipt!). The bulbs sold at Big Box stores are also a good value. Again, mislabeling is a danger. I wasn't pleased last spring when a dozen 'white' tulips bloomed orange and yellow. I dug them all up and returned them to Lowe's for a refund. But the 'Stargazer' lilies that I bought from WalMart were lovely last summer. I just purchased more of them today at Lowe's - five for $6 is a great price, especially since I didn't have to pay extra for shipping. The bulbs (a few of them are pictured below) weren't quite as large as the 'Casa Blanca' lily bulbs I ordered from Dutch Gardens last spring, but they should produce some flowers this year and even more in years to come.

You can see that the plant shoots were already poking up from the bulbs. Last year I accidentally broke the shoot off a bulb, and it didn't ever grow. I was especially careful with these, and managed to plant all fifteen bulbs this morning without any breakage. It was wonderful to work out in the garden again! Of course, my back is a little sore tonight - I'm out of shape for gardening - but the fleeting soreness will be well justified when the fragrant and showy 'Stargazer' blooms appear in July or August. I'll be sure to post a pictures.


  1. Hi VW

    Sound advice indeed. I buy a fair amount of bare root stuff and it's always best to get them in ASAP.

    The fact that the larger stores don't quibble about a refund is something that's not always understood over here! No quibble and everyone wins. You purchased some more bulbs from Lowes.

  2. Oh VW, now I am going to have to stop by some of those big box stores. I had a Stargazer (a couple in fact) and a couple Casablanca. The voles left them alone for about 4 years...this past summer I guess they were especially hungry. None of them came up! Boo voles!

  3. Hi VW, You wrote on the exact topic that I just experienced!!! My last post explained some of what I just bought at Lowe's! However, it only talked about 2 types of bareroots I bought...and put in a couple of days ago, immediately before the big SNOWSTORM, that has now completely covered the ground making it IMPOSSIBLE to put all of the others (LOTS!!!! of others) in the ground. I hope they'll survive 'til I can put them in!!
    I also got a lot of bulbs in bags...WAY TOO MANY. I need to return some of them (hope they'll take them back). I have so many bags of various bulbs it's ridiculous. And I wasn't paying attention about the need to dig some of them up in the fall! I don't like having to do either I don't plant those or else after they bloom, I let them die in the ground.

    Thank you for an extremely informative post VW! I hope you have great success with your bulbs and roots too!!!

    PS Where did you order all of the plants you have listed in your sidebar??

  4. All very good advice! Some of the big box stores seem to end up with a lot of rotten bulbs. I bought most of my oriental lilies from big box stores and have had good luck with them, other than our dog or kids stepping on the precious new growth. Your yard will smell wonderful with all those lilies blooming!

  5. Good advice VW! I tend to avoid the big box stores in general, but must admit I've found some great bargains, especially in the garden departments. Last year at the end of the season I got some gorgeous, healthy heaucheras at Home Despot for a dollar each, and saw a box of 50 or so caladiums at Sams for $14.99. . . hmmm. . . might have to go back for those. I was able to feel the bulbs - most of them were decent-sized and I didn't come across any soft ones.

  6. Well, Rob, Lowe's did quibble a bit about the hostas. I bought them last year in March, and didn't bring my receipt back until this January. Hey, if they don't mean 1 year, then don't advertise a 1 year guarantee, right? The first employee explained that I had to bring in the dead plants to get a refund. I explained that the tiny hosta roots that never grew were certainly rotted away by then. She brought her manager over, who explained the same thing. How could he know that the plants had died if I didn't bring them in? Thinking of how easy it would be to dig up some random mush and present it as my hostas, but shrinking at the effort of making another trip, I calmly but firmly replied that a level of trust is needed in any plant return. I stated that I had purchased many plants from Lowe's and would continue to do so, and I wasn't the type of person to lie to get a refund. He finally caved and gave me my $5.82. I was shaking a bit - I really hate confrontation of any sort - but proud of myself for politely making my point. And yes, I bought the 15 stargazers from them and will continue to visit their garden center for years to come.

  7. VW:
    I worked for one of those Big Box giants for four years, and never once set foot in their 'garden' centre, let alone purchase plants from there! It's all a ploy to pull people into the store, nothing more, nothing less.I was shocked to hear an associate question what a 'watering log' was used for. Gee, perhaps to keep track of when the plants are irrigated or sprinkled, or drowned! I have seen all of the above! One year guarantees are a tricky and slippery beast at best but the concept of bringing in the 'dead' plant just went right over their heads...... we need to see it, you could have picked this receipt up in the parking lot.... yeah, heard that one too!
    I enjoy the contents of this post..... many people do find great plants at big box retailers, but they really need to appreciate Caveat Emptor... let the buyer beware! I hope this post gets good exposure... it will save a lot of heartache!

  8. Teza, I laughed when I read your comment. Yes, buyer beware is the attitude for big box stores, especially Wally World. That and don't trust the plant advice you'll get from the employees (yourself excepted). But I've purchased plenty of plants from them that have been perfectly healthy and watered. I've also seen some of the casualties, poor things. I'd love to have enough money to make all of my purchases (plants and otherwise) in high-end stores, but my budget isn't endless. So I continue to frequent the big boxes.

  9. I've lost very few plants from the box stores. I suppose this is because I'm very choosy about what I buy. About the only question I'll ask the clerk is "Are you getting any more of these?" And I get the blank stare. :)

    I don't buy bare root plants (except for roses) because they're always inferior to the potted non-dormant ones on sale a month later. However I do buy bulbs. I like to check the bulbs as best I can to see if there are fresh roots or a shoot. Bi Mart had dahlia tubers but the peat they were packaged in was like dust...extremely dry. Red Flag.

    Good post.

  10. I think they count on most people not having the determination and organizational skills to return under performing plants, so they don't have much of a system for dealing with it. It sounds like you take full advantage of their refund policy. I have this picture it being like Norm from the TV show Cheers and you're in there so often buying/returning they all shout "VW"!

    Your garden sounds so lush - the wonderful spring reward for waiting out the winter.

  11. I live in the boonies, so don't have the moral dilemma of whether or not to shop at the Big Boxes. Gotta say I love my independent nurseries, whether garden centers or a few greenhouses on a country road--great prices too.


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