Guaranteeing Life?

Let me begin by saying that our garden center guarantees plants today and will continue to do so for years to come! For years I have wanted to write this article and have struggled to find the right verbiage that would accurately convey my thoughts, walking a fine line between educating the consumer and not sounding condescending. Informing the homeowner, and landscaper for that matter, that guaranteeing life is just silly.

I love movies, all types of genres, but comedies are my favorite. The movie “Tommy Boy” has one of the best quotes about guarantees that I know. After an “off-color” banter about guarantees, between a manufacturer and his customer, Tommy Boy says, “But for now, for your customers sake, for your daughter’s sake, ya might wanna think about buying a quality product from me.” Convincingly, he impresses the importance of buying quality products over low price. “The bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” A great locution written on the side door of Grant Construction’s trucks, a New Jersey construction company, years back.

For as long as I can remember plants have been guaranteed in one form or another. Whether it’s a three-month, six-month or one-year guarantee, telling consumers that no matter the outcome, their purchase is guaranteed. Most plants, commonly purchased at a garden center, have a vascular system; that’s to say that vascular vessels transport food and water throughout the plant by way of their xylem and phloem. They need proper nutrition to survive the same way we do. Vascular plants are those that have leaves, branches, stems, flowers and roots.

So here’s my question, when new parents bring their baby home from the hospital, does the registered nurse and doctor guarantee the life of the child? Do they tell the parents their child will remain free from infection or household mishaps? Parents are expected to love, feed, bath, and monitor their children. In short, pay attention to anything that might get in the way of their child’s development. Don’t misunderstand me, unexpected circumstances can and will come up. However, plant material that arrives at an Independent Garden Center has already been state inspected, free of any insect or fungal issues when it arrives. Doctors, registered nurses, grandparents, even the Internet today are all there to help give thoughtful advice so their child can develop and grow into a well adjusted human being. In essence, the acorn can become the mighty oak, capable of providing shade to the perennial counterparts at its feet.

Plants are not widgets, swiftly manufactured in days off of an assembly line! Months, even years, are needed to develop annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. And better plants, YES BETTER PLANTS, those that have been well groomed, spaced appropriately, grafted, propagated by air-layering, patented plants, those that have advanced soils with Mycorrhizae added to them, etc. take even longer to bring to market. The average length of time to bring a marketable plant to fruition has been measured between 3-8 years for woody ornamentals. Annuals and perennials take far less time to produce a quality plant while larger calipered deciduous trees and conifers can take one to two decades. Often I speak directly to quality. While everyone I know enjoys a good deal, most would not sacrifice the quality of a said commodity. Their needs to be a standard of excellence for plant material that demands more dollars, as more time, effort and science has gone into their development. Do all winemakers produce the same bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon? Do all farmers yield the same crop from their land? Do all tomatoes taste the same or does a Jersey tomato, in the summer, just taste better? Partially my fault and certainly many others in my industry, we have taken for granted, for far too long, that the public understands the difference between premium plants and B-Grade or commercial/park grade plant material. There needs to be an appreciation for well developed plants, free of blemishes, not chlorotic, that have strong root systems, are well-branched and have been harvested thoughtfully and or developed properly in containers. The image is clear, damaged plants, those with broken limbs, showing signs of decline; bug infested and or otherwise damaged should cost less! Broken root balls, scuffed tree bark and two sided plants similarly speak the same language. Discounts on substandard plant material only cheapen our industry. But for some obscure reason plants are held to a different standard. Time, effort, science and knowledge all go into the development and growth of a healthy plant. Their beauty should not be taken for granted, boiled down or lumped into a lowest common denominator.

Whether you know this or not, plants that are sold to IGC’s, (Independent Garden Center’s) throughout the country, are NOT GUARANTEED to them beyond the plants correct botanical name. Once a plant has been received by an IGC, it is their responsibility to look after the plant. Extreme cold in March and April requires them to tarp or bring plants inside to keep them safe. Similar efforts, in the hot summer months, may require extra water or shade cloth to help keep them healthy. Not to mention, aesthetically pleasing for their customers.

Once a plant leaves the Independent Garden Center, how do they know what efforts have been made to keep the plant alive? Furthermore what assurances do they have that the plant was planted correctly? Often I use an analogy when planting plants properly. Avoiding the pitfalls of planting too high, those unsightly mulched volcanoes, and planting too deep, burying the root flare of the plant. If you stand in a pool and the water is one inch under your nose, you can still breath. However, if your standing in the same pool and the water were one inch higher than your nose, you would drown. The same holds true with plants. Another analogy I have for watering a plant, references a sponge in a sink. Plants, on average, should be checked for water two to three times a week. Not every day and not once week. If you had a sponge in a sink and you went away for a week, you could break the sponge in half, as it would have dried out. If you kept the same sponge wet everyday you could breed bacteria or mildew. I tell our customers that you want the consistency of the sponge being rung out. In other words, give your plants the chance to accept the water you give them, utilize it and then get ready to accept more.

A customer once told me that I sold him a “dead plant!”  I wanted to say; “I must be one heck of a salesperson to sell you a dead plant the day you bought it.” After working through all the possibilities that could have caused the plant to fail, the customer admitted that they went away for the summer and hadn’t watered it beyond the first two weeks. Truth is, in my nearly 30 years of retail experience, in the “Green Industry”, the majority of returns have been attributed to either over or under watering the plant. Important to also note that the amount of returns, to our garden center, is so infinitesimal it is just good business to replace plants that are returned.

Often I draw similar comparisons to other perishable products like produce and condiments. Would you wait for your fruit to over ripen, have soft spots and gnats flying around it before you eat it? Would you expect mayonnaise, left out in the hot summer sun all day, to still be safe to eat? Furthermore, should you expect your new pet to be guaranteed from infection or mishaps too? Of course not! Sound and reasonable judgment combined with a strong commitment, the operative word here, help ensure expectations are met. Why then should plants be held to a different standard?

There are no short cuts to gardening. You can read every gardening book and scour the Internet for advice, it doesn’t guarantee success. You can buy light and moisture meters, start with a healthy plant, in a good planting medium with fertilizer, and water your new plant the day you get home. You have to figure out soil content, watering and what exactly part sun/part shade really means, for your particular plant on your particular property, for yourself. Guidelines are in place for you to follow, the same way they are there for your newborn baby coming home from the hospital. Sound, prudent judgment and a commitment to nurture your new “green friends” are needed to ensure their growth and reach their potential. You have to figure out feeding, diaper changes, sleep cycles; swaddling, white noise and even those soothing midnight car rides for yourself.  Imagine an oak tree, planted by a grandparent that the grandchild gets to sit under. Appreciating the shade and beauty it offers should not be taken for granted let alone guaranteed! In short, plants are living, breathing things and need to be treated as such with a commitment and respect for their well being.