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Go to Ratings of 107 Delaware Valley Area Garden Centers

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Garden Centers

Our Ratings Tables list ratings for Delaware Valley area garden centers. Several were rated “superior” for overall quality by more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers, others by just 30 percent or fewer. 

Home Depot and Lowe’s scored, on average, lower than almost all of the independent stores. 

But for the selection of plants they sell, these two big chains did very well on price. At the time of our last full, published article, Home Depot’s prices averaged 36 percent below the all-store average for comparable items, and Lowe’s averaged 21 percent below the all-store average. 

Unlike most types of services and stores we examine, paying more for plants at garden centers does slightly improve your odds of getting better advice, service, and product quality. Many of the stores rated highest for quality charge higher-than-average prices, but some stores on our Ratings Tables that rate high for quality also have below-average prices. 

For specific plants, we found enormous nursery-to-nursery price differences. For example, for an eight- to 10-foot-high river birch, prices ranged from $60 to $349; and for a peace lily in a 10-inch pot, prices ranged from $13 to $60. 

Here is some advice on judging plant quality— 

  • Check roots to make sure they have not dried out. Probe with your finger or look through the container’s drain holes to make sure roots are whitish, not brown. 
  • Check shrubs and trees to make sure that branches are not weak or broken, that bark has no scars or holes, that pruning cuts are flush with the branch or trunk, and that there is no dead wood. 
  • Check plants for signs of disease, such as browned or grayed areas or spots on leaves or stems. 
  • Check for insects. 
  • In the growing season, make sure there is new growth. 

When you make your purchases, get— 

  • A receipt that includes the common and the Latin names of the plants, size, number purchased, date of purchase, price, and guarantee. 
  • Instructions on how to plant—appropriate amount of sun exposure, proper drainage, size of hole, how deep to plant, what to put in the planting hole, and recommendations for staking, if necessary. 
  • Instructions on pruning, feeding, and spraying. 

Which perennials do better in the shade? What shrubs should I plant if wildlife frequents my yard? What houseplants will add color to my home? A knowledgeable garden center or nursery staff can provide the answers to these and other questions. 

Running a good nursery takes knowledge, years of experience, organizational skill, and a strong commitment to quality. And since most retail nurseries buy—rather than raise—most of the plants they sell, there is tremendous variation in buying expertise and buying standards. 

These challenges are clearly reflected in ratings for garden centers we collected from area consumers. Our Ratings Tables show that some retailers were rated “superior” for “quality of products” by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but several others were rated “superior” on this question by fewer than 40 percent. 

On the price front, we found tremendous variation—perhaps more than in any other subject we cover. Unfortunately, we found the lowest prices at big chains, which receive poor ratings from their customers. 

Although paying more will improve your odds of getting better advice, service, and product quality, we found some high-rated stores that charge below-average prices. The information on our Ratings Tables, which includes ratings from Delaware Valley area consumers and store price comparisons, will help you find them. 

How to Plan 

Start by making a plan that takes into account your yard’s soil type and acidity, drainage patterns, and sunlight exposure. Match plant types with areas where they are likely to thrive. Your plan should show how your property will look right away, and how it will look years from now when your plants have grown. Without a plan, you could wind up with an assortment of plants that do not complement each other in size, shape, or color. You might end up with shade where you want sun and with the view from, or of, your house obscured. Worse, you might pay for expensive plants when inexpensive ones would do just as well. 

It’s easy to make a rough drawing showing your house, other structures, property lines, and desired plants. Get guidelines and ideas from gardening websites, friends with attractive gardens, and the experts listed below. 

If you want professional help with your plan, you have several options. A garden center or landscape contractor can send a designer to your home. If you want to do your own buying and planting, you can pay a consultation fee for help preparing your own plan or a design fee for the designer to draw the plan. Or get a free consultation by asking a nursery for a landscaping estimate. 

You can also hire a landscape architect or garden designer to provide complete service, including consultation, design, assistance in selecting a landscape contractor, and supervision of plant selection and contractor performance. Or get only the consultation or the design. Your first conversation with an architect may be free; after that, fees are set in various ways. 

For more information on landscape designers and landscape contractors, see our Landscaping Help article. 

How to Shop 

As you make your plans, a garden center or nursery can be a valuable resource. You’ll want to shop at stores that employ knowledgeable staff, sell healthy plants, offer broad selections of products, make things right when something goes wrong, and charge reasonable prices. The information we report on our Ratings Tables for Delaware Valley area garden centers will point you to several businesses that do all of these things well. But our Ratings Tables also reveal that many other local stores miss the mark on quality, and some charge very high prices. 

Getting Good Advice 

Garden center personnel can provide invaluable advice on buying plants. Experienced staff can offer helpful advice as to what plants are available, under what conditions they’ll thrive, and how to care for them. 

Our Ratings Tables show how consumers we surveyed rated local stores on “advice on choice and use of products.” (Our surveys of area consumers—who are primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers—and other research methods are described here.) 

At 25 of the 105 rated stores, at the time of our last full, published article, the quality of advice was judged “superior” by at least 80 percent of surveyed customers; by contrast, 28 others got similarly favorable ratings from fewer than 30 percent of their surveyed customers. 

A garden center or nursery should also organize plants to make it easy to find what you want and label plants clearly. A legible sign, tag, or brochure on each plant should indicate botanical name, common name, care requirements, expected height, flowering and berrying behavior, and price. Our Ratings Tables show how customers rated each store for “ease of looking at/testing products.” 

Getting High-Quality Plants 

Tremendous store-to-store variation exists in the quality of plants offered, part of it due to differences in the knowledge, years of experience, organizational skill, and commitment to quality of staff and management. And because most retailers are not nurseries but rather buy—not grow—what they sell, there is room for tremendous variation in buying expertise and buying standards. 

The best stores buy some types of high-cost plants by sending buyers to suppliers and having them mark by hand each plant they want. It would cost less if they let the supplier choose the plants, but then quality would be less consistent. 

Even if they don’t handpick plants, the best stores rely on long-standing buying relationships and the incentive of future purchases to obtain top-quality plants. They make sure suppliers know their standards and tell them when the material is not up to par. 

Although this level of buying skill and concern is important, the care plants get after they reach the store is even more important. 

When you visit stores and assess their plants, consider two main aspects of quality. First, are plants “true to type”—that is, look the way that species of plant is supposed to look? If they are supposed to be symmetrical, are they? If they are supposed to have full foliage, do they? If they are supposed to be dark green, are they? 

Find out how plants are supposed to look by visiting several nurseries, checking plant catalogs and garden books, talking with experts (listed below), taking garden tours, and visiting public gardens. 

Second, ascertain the condition of the plants. You can easily judge some aspects of condition by examining the plants; other aspects must be deduced from what you observe and hear about the store’s plant-care practices. 

The condition of plants is important not only because healthier plants are more likely to survive, but because they require less effort to maintain and grow up looking better. You don’t want a plant that loses foliage or branches and becomes scraggly. Stressed plants can also attract insects and diseases, which can spread to neighboring healthy plants. 

Here are points to check when evaluating places that sell plants and, later, when selecting individual plants: 

  • Make sure the plants have never at any time dried out. Check for moisture around the roots with your finger to determine that the root ball is not cement-hard. Avoid plants that have been placed on hot pavement; the best nursery practice is to keep the root ball covered—usually with soil, sawdust, or bark. Many plants—particularly broadleaf evergreens—should be kept under a lath structure or otherwise protected from continual direct sunlight. Good garden centers have good sprinkler systems. 
  • Make sure the root ball of “balled and burlapped” plants is not cracked or loose—that dirt is not torn away from the roots—as happens, for instance, if nursery personnel carelessly drop plants when unloading delivery trucks. Check that the ball moves as you gently tip the tree, but don’t rock the tree from side to side because that might separate the tree from the ball. 
  • Check the roots of containerized plants; you can usually see them through drainage holes. Live roots are whitish, dead ones brown. Make sure the plant has not outgrown the container and become rootbound. Roots of rootbound plants are tightly wound around one another, and may eventually strangle the plant. 
  • Make sure plants’ root balls are large enough to sustain them. The rule of thumb for deciduous trees is that the ball should be nine to 12 inches in diameter for each inch of trunk diameter. Root balls for evergreen trees can be slightly smaller. 
  • Check the drainage holes of plant containers; excess white residue indicates overfertilization. 
  • Examine trees and shrubs for weak and declining branches, scarring, pruning cuts not flush with the branch or trunk, dead wood, indications of disease or infestation, and holes. 
  • Make sure trees and shrubs have strong branches that grow out from the center. 
  • Make sure a tree doesn’t have a “V” crotch, which is likely to split when the tree gets older. 
  • Check that foliage is not unnaturally yellowed or faded, and that it is not bruised or injured. 
  • Look for signs of disease, such as browned or grayed areas or spots on leaves or stems. 
  • Examine plants for insects. Look in the tight areas between leaf and stem, on the underside of leaves, and on leaf stems. Check foliage for insect damage, such as holes chewed in the edges of leaves or tunnels visible between leaf layers. 
  • During the growing season, make sure there is new growth (usually a lighter green) and that leaves are not wilted or brittle. 
  • Find out if plants were dug in the wild. When plants grow in the wild, their roots spread and that root material is lost when the plants are dug up. Plants cultivated in nurseries, on the other hand, are likely to have their roots pruned several times during transplanting or otherwise contained during their development, forcing a more compact root system which can be dug up largely intact. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Guides for the Nursery Industry” characterizes selling such plants without disclosing that they were collected from the wild as “unfair trade practice.” 
  • When buying plants sold with bare roots (for example, most young fruit trees), check that the roots are not shrunken or shriveled and have been kept moist. Check also that the buds are firm, not crispy and dry. And look for a lot of fibrous roots, an indication that the plants have been cultivated and dug carefully. 

Our customer survey ratings on our Ratings Tables regarding “quality of products” show what many consumers thought of the condition of plants in the stores they used. Of course, our raters in many cases not only looked at plants in the store but also saw how they performed in their gardens. 

Another way to assess quality is to find out what guarantee the store offers. Garden centers offer good guarantees when they believe their plants are healthy—and are willing to compensate you if they aren’t. 

Guarantees vary in duration, proportion of the price covered, proportion of delivery and planting costs covered, and other factors. In general, you get a broader guarantee if the store does the planting than if you do it yourself. 

All things being equal, you should choose a store that offers a broad guarantee. But there are sound reasons some quality stores don’t offer especially good guarantees: The fact is that most plant deaths result from improper planting or care, not from problems at the time of sale. A store may not want to put itself at much risk based on the performance of its customers. 

We asked customers to rate garden centers on “reliability (standing behind products, delivering on time, etc.).” Our Ratings Tables show the percentage of each store’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior”—a good indication of which stores are most likely to replace plants that prove to be defective. 

Getting Lots of Choices 

If you are a sophisticated gardener with exotic tastes, you may care as much about the availability of unusual specimens as about plant health. Even a novice may want enough choice of sizes and shapes to find a plant that suits the available space and fits a budget. 

Our customer survey scores provide one measure of variety. But keep in mind that our “variety” question no doubt meant different things to different respondents, depending on which store they were rating. A garden center specializing in annuals might have been rated high for its wide selection of annuals, and not downgraded for a weak selection of shrubs or trees. 

To find out whether a store carries the types of plants you want, you’ll have to pay a visit. 

Getting Special Services 

Many stores do more than just sell plants. Most deliver them. Many garden centers also provide landscaping advice, do planting, build retaining walls, remove stumps, and offer various other services. 

Getting Good Prices 

The information on our Ratings Tables and your own visits will help you find top-quality garden centers and nurseries. Our Ratings Tables also will help you figure out which offer the best prices. 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, we checked prices for 19 different plants, such as an eight- to 10-foot-high river birch and a peace lily in a 10-inch pot. 

Table 1 reveals tremendous store-to-store price variation—possibly more price variation than for any other type of business we cover. For almost all of the 19 different plants we shopped for, the highest price was more than three times the lowest price; in some instances, the highest price was more than six times the lowest price. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Stores for Illustrative Plants

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Stores for Illustrative Plants
PlantLow priceAverage priceHigh price
Chrysanthemum, in a six-inch pot, quantity of three$8$13$21
Dwarf fountain grass, in a one-gallon pot, quantity of six$36$66$120
Hydrangea, in a three-gallon pot$18$38$69
Periwinkle, flat of 45 to 50 plants$17$34$74
Dwarf burning bush, in a three-gallon pot$20$31$70
River birch tree, eight to 10 feet high$60$154$349
Feather reedgrass (Karl Foerster), in a one-gallon pot$6$15$30
Peace lily, in a 10-inch pot$13$27$60
Dracena (corn plant), in a six-inch pot$7$17$35
Schefflera (umbrella plant), two-and-one-half to three feet high, in a 10-inch pot$10$31$70

The price index scores on our Ratings Tables show how each store’s prices for the items it stocked compared to the average prices of all surveyed garden centers for the same items. (Because we found generally consistent prices for chains, we used a single chain-wide average price for each item.) The scores are adjusted to a base of $100. Thus, a store with a price index score of $110 had prices 10 percent higher than the average of all stores’ prices for the same items. 

For the selection of plants they sell, Home Depot and Lowe’s did very well on price. Home Depot’s prices averaged 36 percent below the all-store average for comparable items, and Lowe’s averaged 21 percent below the all-store average. Unfortunately, both Home Depot and Lowe’s received well-below-average ratings on “quality of products.” 

It is important to note that in this field—unlike most we cover—there is a correlation between price and quality. As Figure 1 shows, a store with high ratings on our customer survey for “quality of products” is more likely than not to have a higher-than-average price index score. Fortunately, however, some stores that rated high on our quality measures also had below-average prices. 

Figure 1—Relationship Between Price and Quality of Plants

When using the price index scores, keep in mind that we could not compare prices on identical products; although two stores might sell the same type of azalea with similar spreads, for example, the plants’ health or fullness of foliage may be distinctly different. 

Also, keep in mind that stores with high price index scores may have low prices for certain items. You can check prices by phone, but be sure to ask the right questions— 

  • First, have the correct name for the particular variety of plant you want; the Latin name is usually more precise. 
  • Second, specify size in a meaningful way. Asking the height of a Kurume-type azalea means little; because it is a semi-spreading evergreen, its price depends on its spread (say, “18 to 24 inches”), not its height. Trade practice with blue spruce, on the other hand, is to price according to height; and large shade trees are priced by height, container size, and trunk diameter. Ask the garden centers what terms to use, or download a copy of the “American Standard for Nursery Stock” from the American Nursery & Landscape Association website (www.anla.org). 
  • Third, obtain an overview of quality. Ask store personnel whether quoted prices are for “specimen” plants, “standard” plants, or “culls” (below-standard plants). Because these terms have the same meaning to personnel at any nursery, most will provide straight answers, rather than risk incurring your anger if you come in and find that they don’t have what they have promised. 

How to Buy 

After you have purchased your plants, take a few final precautions. First, get a receipt. The receipt should include— 

  • Common name and Latin name of each plant 
  • Size and grade of each plant 
  • Number purchased 
  • Date 
  • Price of each plant 
  • Guarantee (duration; whether it covers costs of delivery and planting; percentage of cost covered and whether percentage is based on original purchase price or price at the time of replacement; what customer must do to keep the guarantee in force) 

If you plan to have the plants delivered, the receipt should indicate delivery date, delivery charge (if any), and planting charges (if applicable). 

If plants will be delivered, have the store tag them. To be extra cautious on major purchases, take pictures of your selections; otherwise, it may be hard to argue that the store has delivered the wrong plant. 

Before leaving the store, make sure you have obtained the following information on each plant you buy, and retain it as long as you have the plant— 

  • Latin name and common name of the plant—you’ll need them to get advice on the plant months or years later. 
  • How to plant it—size and depth of hole, whether to fertilize and stake, recommended soil for planting hole. 
  • Desirable amount of sun and specifications for drainage. 
  • Proper care—pruning, feeding, and spraying requirements. 
  • Whether you can expect fruit or flowers. 

How to Plant 

You can supplement the information your garden center or nursery provides on planting procedures and plant care with information from a good gardening website or book. Your plants will survive and prosper only if you treat them well. The tips listed below will help you avoid common planting errors. 

  • When transporting foliage-bearing plants, don’t expose them to the wind; it rapidly dries them out. If you load them into your trunk with foliage protruding, cover them with burlap or similar material. 
  • Keep your plants in the shade, and prepare your holes before you uncover them. Then plant quickly, before the plants can dry out. 
  • Carry plants by the root ball or container—not the stem—so that the weight of the soil and root mass does not cause the stem to break away from the plant. Don’t drop plants; the ball might split. 
  • Don’t plant too deep. Plant shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons so that the root ball is slightly above grade, with soil built up around them. Putting this type of plant in a deeper hole can smother feeder roots. In addition, the hole serves as a cup, holding water around the roots and drowning the plant. When planting any tree or shrub in holes dug deeper than the root ball, allow for the plant to settle as the soil is compacted. Avoid placing soil on top of the root ball. 
  • For most plants, the hole should be three to five times as wide as the root ball, to allow roots to spread into the well-aerated, soft soil backfilled into the hole. Otherwise, depending on soil type, the untilled soil may serve as a pot, containing the roots and forcing them to wrap around themselves. 
  • In general, leave natural burlap on a “balled and burlapped” plant while you place it in the hole; then fold it back when the planting hole is half full so that it is not exposed above the ground. Remove ropes, wires, and fabrics containing plastic fibers. 
  • When container-grown plants come out of pots with a tight ball of fibrous roots growing in a circle around the inside of the pot, cut roots to allow outward growth. Otherwise, the roots will continue to grow in a circular pattern; years later you will be able to pull the plant out of the ground just as if it were still in the pot—and eventually the plant may strangle itself. One good approach is to cut a deep “X” in the bottom of the root ball, extending the cuts about one-fourth of the way up the ball; then pull the four sections of the bottom out to the sides, forming four legs. Then make two or three cuts with your knife about one-half inch deep down the sides of the ball to break the circular flow of the root fibers. 
  • Opinions differ on the best way to backfill planting holes. One approach is to use a mix of soil to which you have added about one-third organic matter, such as compost, composted manure, peat, or shredded bark. But some argue that plants do better if you backfill with the same soil you’ve removed, so that the roots will grow into surrounding soil rather than into a rich backfilled mix. It’s most important not to add too much organic matter, because it may become soggy by absorbing water from denser soil around the hole. 
  • When planting, fertilize with starter fertilizer to stimulate root growth. Small amounts of nitrogen can help sustain vigor in root development, but high-nitrogen fertilizer can force excessive leaf, shoot, and branch growth before the roots are ready to sustain it. 
  • Prune away dead and diseased branches. 
  • Before watering, firm the soil in the hole. Build a circular dam outside the root periphery, forming a “saucer” three to four inches deep. Fill the saucer with mulch. Then water thoroughly and slowly. After that, water only as the soil dries out. Check with a soil probe or a moisture meter, available at garden supply stores. Consistent, even watering is one of the most significant factors in plant survival and success in the first two or three years after transplanting. 
  • The best planting times are spring and fall when air temperature is cooler, sunlight less intense, rainfall is more consistent, and cool soil temperatures encourage root growth. 

Extra Advice:
Should You Buy Plants Online or via Catalog? 

You don’t have to buy all your plants at local garden centers. Various websites and catalogs sell plants by mail, but should you deal with them? 

There are two main advantages to buying by mail. First, plants can be less expensive (even after you take into account possible shipping costs). Second, catalogs and websites may sell unusual plants unavailable at local nurseries. 

But there are also disadvantages to mail-order and buying online. First, you usually get bare-rooted plants, which can be planted only during the dormant season (before tree buds begin to swell). Second, you usually can’t get larger plants. Third, if you are dissatisfied, it’s a hassle to repackage them and send them back. Finally, and most important, you can’t see in advance exactly what you will be getting or select particular specimens. The plants you get may bear little resemblance to the beautiful pictures in the catalog or on the website. 

If you decide to deal with Internet or mail-order firms, choose companies whose catalogs or websites provide the most precise and detailed descriptions. Catalogs that use only age to describe a plant’s size and fullness leave much to be desired. 

Extra Advice:
Expert Advice 

Cooperative Extension agents will give you advice by phone or at their offices and will help you diagnose plant problems if you bring or send them specimens. Each Cooperative Extension office also offers a publications catalog listing guides you can send for (some of which are free) on plant-related topics. The addresses and phone numbers of the local agencies are listed below. 

Extension Offices 

University of Delaware Cooperative Extension
www.extension.udel.edu

New Castle County
461 Wyoming Road
Newark, DE
302-831-2667 

Rutgers Cooperative Extension
www.njaes.rutgers.edu/county

Burlington County
2 Academy Drive
Westampton, NJ
609-265-5050 

Camden County
1301 Park Boulevard
Cherry Hill, NJ
856-216-7130 

Gloucester County
1200 North Delsea Drive
Clayton, NJ
856-307-6450 

Penn State Extension
201 Agricultural Administration Bldg.
University Park, PA
814-865-2541
www.extension.psu.edu

Bucks County
1282 Almshouse Road
Doylestown, PA
215-345-3283 

Chester County
601 Westtown Road #370
West Chester, PA
610-696-3500 

Delaware County
20 Paper Mill Road
Springfield, PA
610-690-2655 

Montgomery County
1015 Bridge Road #H
Collegeville, PA
610-489-4315 

Philadelphia County
2 Penn Center Plaza, Suite 200
Philadelphia, PA
215-471-2200 

Bartram’s Garden
54th Street & Lindbergh Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA
215-729-5281
www.bartramsgarden.org

Camden Children’s Garden
Camden City Garden Club
3 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ
856-365-8733
www.camdenchildrensgarden.org

Chanticleer Garden
786 Church Road
Wayne, PA
610-687-4163
www.chanticleergarden.org

The Del-Chester Rose Society
http://mhuss.com/dcrs

Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania
100 East Northwestern Avenue
Philadelphia, PA
215-247-5777
www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
100 North 20th Street, 5th Floor
Philadelphia, PA
215-988-8800
www.phsonline.org

Tyler Arboretum
515 Painter Road
Media, PA
610-566-9134
www.tylerarboretum.org

The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College
500 College Avenue
Swarthmore, PA
610-328-8025
www.scottarboretum.org



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