How to Shop at an Independent Garden Center

Learn how to shop wisely and save money at an independent garden center.

Plant Nursery

Plant Nursery

A good way to find everything you need for your next gardening project is an independent garden center, which often feature a broad selection of plants.

Photo by: Nancy J. Ondra

Nancy J. Ondra

A good way to find everything you need for your next gardening project is an independent garden center, or IGC. What is an independent garden center? That is the industry name for retailers that focus on gardening and outdoor living, as opposed to “big box” retailers, farm stores, hardware stores and other places which may have a “garden center” along with plumbing, hardware, or even clothing and housewares. They are “independent” because they tend to be locally or independently owned and operated, although there are some substantially sized regional IGC chains out there. 

There are three categories that set well-managed IGCs apart from other sources of garden supplies: selection, services, knowledge. The selection at these stores is far broader and deeper within plant and garden related categories than other retailers. You are assured a good selection of varieties within categories (for instance they may offer fifteen different types of Japanese maple, when other retailers may offer two or three at most). Independent garden centers pride themselves on service - both within the store experience, and as an additional sales offering. You may expect to have personal sales attention and assistance in loading your purchase as a routine part of shopping with them; most will offer home delivery, design and installation services and even special orders on hard to find items. IGCs thrive on their reputation as experts in the gardening industry and so they work hard to ensure that horticulturists are available to answer questions and offer suggestions.

For new gardeners, or those who are new to shopping at independent garden centers, there is often an expectation that prices will be significantly higher at these stores than larger retailers. That is not always true. The best IGCs offer commodity items, things like soil, mulch and commonly available plants, at competitive prices. There may, however, be large specimen plants, or unique varieties which will seem “expensive” mainly due to limited market availability or the time required to grow these plants. These “expensive” plants are generally not available at larger retailers. Similarly, when IGCs offer other outdoor living categories like furniture, fountains or grills, they are often not attempting direct competition with the less-expensive big box stores. Because of quality differences, even within the same brands, it always pays to comparatively shop to ensure an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

The next time you head out to an independent garden center, there are a few things you should keep in mind to get the most for your gardening dollar. First, establish a relationship with the store: ask about loyalty programs or similar offerings. Most IGCs reward their loyal customers in various ways, including discounts, freebies, etc. Second, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Their knowledgeable associates may help you avoid costly missteps. Third, watch and ask for deals. While “the price is the price” is almost always true, it is also true (with past-peak live plants and other older merchandise) that “a discount now is better than the dumpster later.” Finally, shopping “in season” often ensures the best prices. Look for plants to become available, and go on special, during their natural bloom time in your area. For instance, there will probably be a sale on forsythia some time in late winter or early spring because that is when it blooms, so if you need forsythia...plan on buying it at that time.

Shopping at an independent garden center may take a bit more effort, if it’s not just down the street like the big boxes. But the reward for your effort is a vast selection from which to buy, great service offerings, and a knowledgeable sales force that provides an awesome sounding-board for your garden projects. These facets combine to provide a fantastic value that can help you grow the garden you’ve always wanted.

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