Our Ratings Tables list ratings for Washington 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.
The big chainsHome Depot, Lowes, and Meadows Farms Nurseriesscored,
on average, lower than almost all of the independent stores.
But for the selection of plants they sell, these three big chains did very
well on price. At the time of our last full, published article, Home Depots
prices averaged 44 percent below the all-store average for comparable items;
Lowes averaged 41 percent below the all-store average; and Meadows Farms
averaged 15 percent below the all-store average.
Unlike most types of services and stores we examine, paying more for plants
at garden centers does improve your odds of getting better advice, service,
and product quality. Most 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 a three- to four-foot-high ficus in a 10-inch pot, prices
ranged from $23 to $150; and for an eight- to 10-foot-high river birch,
prices ranged from $60 to $330.
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 containers drain holes to make sure roots are whitish,
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 plantappropriate 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
buyrather than raisemost 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 several
retailers were rated superior for quality of products by at least 80
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 variationperhaps 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 Washington area consumers and store price comparisons, will help you
Start by making a plan that takes into account your yards 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.
Its 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
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.
As you make your plans, a garden center or nursery can be a valuable resource.
Youll 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 Washington 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.
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 theyll 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 consumerswho
are primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribersand other research
methods are described here.)
At the time of our last full, published article, at 19 of the 100 rated
stores, the quality of advice was judged superior by at least 80 percent
of surveyed customers; by contrast, 36 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.
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 buynot growwhat 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 dont 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 typethat 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 stores 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 dont 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 coveredusually with soil, sawdust,
or bark. Many plantsparticularly broadleaf evergreensshould 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 loosethat dirt is not torn away from the rootsas 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 dont 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
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
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
Make sure a tree doesnt 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 Commissions 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
healthyand are willing to compensate you if they arent.
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 dont 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 stores surveyed customers who rated it superiora good indication
of which stores are most likely to replace plants that prove to be defective.
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. 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, youll
have to pay a visit.
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.
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 a three- to four-foot-high ficus
in a 10-inch pot and an eight- to 10-foot-high river birch.
Table 1 reveals tremendous store-to-store price variationpossibly 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.
|Chrysanthemum, in a six-inch pot, quantity of three||$9||$16||$24|
|Dwarf fountain grass, in a one-gallon pot, quantity of six||$48||$74||$175|
|Hydrangea, in a three-gallon pot||$20||$36||$56|
|Periwinkle, flat of 45 to 50 plants||$10||$34||$50|
|River birch tree, eight to 10 feet high||$60||$180||$330|
|Hosta, in a one-gallon pot, quantity of three||$15||$40||$60|
|Golden pothos (devil’s ivy), in an eight-inch hanging basket||$10||$18||$25|
|Sansivieria (snake plant), in a six-inch pot||$9||$14||$28|
|Ficus, three to four feet high, in a 10-inch pot||$23||$56||$150|
|Dracena (corn plant), in a six-inch pot||$7||$14||$28|
The price index scores on our Ratings Tables show how each stores
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, three big chainsHome Depot, Lowes,
and Meadows Farms Nurseriesdid very well on price. Home Depots prices
averaged 44 percent below the all-store average for comparable items; Lowes
averaged 41 percent below the all-store average; and Meadows Farms averaged
15 percent below the all-store average. Unfortunately, all three low-priced
chains received well-below-average ratings on quality of products.
It is important to note that in this fieldunlike most we coverthere 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
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
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 dont have what they have
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
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 plantyoull need them to get advice
on the plant months or years later.
How to plant itsize and depth of hole, whether to fertilize and stake,
recommended soil for planting hole.
Desirable amount of sun and specifications for drainage.
Proper carepruning, feeding, and spraying requirements.
Whether you can expect fruit or flowers.
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, dont 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 containernot the stemso that the weight
of the soil and root mass does not cause the stem to break away from the
plant. Dont drop plants; the ball might split.
Dont 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 potand 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 youve
removed, so that the roots will grow into surrounding soil rather than
into a rich backfilled mix. Its 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.
You dont 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 cant
get larger plants. Third, if you are dissatisfied, its a hassle to repackage
them and send them back. Finally, and most important, you cant 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 plants size and fullness leave
much to be desired.
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
1108 Jefferson Street
3308 South Stafford Street
District of Columbia
4200 Connecticut Avenue NW
12011 Government Center Parkway, Suite 1050
3300 North Ridge Road, Suite 240
Ellicott City, MD
30-B Catoctin Circle SE
18410 Muncaster Road
Prince Georges County
6707 Groveton Drive
Prince William County
8033 Ashton Avenue, Suite 105
1800 Glenallan Avenue
Horticultural Society of Maryland
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
1550 Anacostia Avenue NE
U.S. National Arboretum
3501 New York Avenue NE
University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center
Ellicott City, MD
800-342-2507 or 410-531-1757