Every year large home improvement stores and other big box retailers provide a wide assortment of annual and perennial fruit and vegetable plants in their garden centers. I was a big customer before I got more serious about my gardening. As I found out through both personal experience and the stories of friends, it’s not the best plan to buy trees from these stores, rather than directly from nurseries.
In the interest of full disclosure: I run a little plant nursery. However, it’s just a side business for me and started as a way to provide inexpensive and rare plants to people attending my gardening presentations. If you buy from, say, Home Depot instead of from Florida Food Forests… I’m not going to cry. That’s okay with me. It’s good for you to buy edible plants and trees, no matter where you get them. After a little time in the nursery business and a lot of time as a fruit tree grower, however, I can tell you honestly: you’re usually better off buying plants from a local nursery.
“But David,” you might say, “What about buying from ____ mail order nursery? I can get plants from their online store for cheaper than I get them at Crazy Eddie’s Plant Emporium down the street. And Crazy Eddie… is, well, crazy!”
It’s true. You can sometimes purchase plants cheaper online – or at a big box store – than you can buy them from a local nurseryman. I’ve bought from a variety of online nurseries and directly from folks on ebay. I’ve also bought at Lowes, Home Depot, K-Mart, Walmart, Publix, Tractor Supply, etc.
One pattern that has emerged since I’ve tried these plants in the ground: they just don’t do as well as plants grown locally.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why so you can buy with confidence.
This isn’t something you’d likely consider, but it’s worth thinking on. Where did that apple tree you just bought for $19.98 originate?
If you live in Las Vegas and the tree was grown in Washington state, how do you think it will adjust to your climate? Chances are, not well. Even weirder, the root stock may have been raised from seed in California, then shipped to Washington to be grafted with a good cultivar. If it spent a couple of years in rainy temperate Washington, then gets planted in your dry yard… will it thrive? It might eventually with extra care; however, it’s better to get a tree from someone growing them in a comparable climate – or preferably the exact same climate – as your own.
As an example, I bought an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry from a nursery up north. Mulberries are very tolerant of a wide variety of climates so I figured it would do fine. I was wrong, at least for the first year. The tree was planted in the spring and grew like a rocket. It didn’t seem to mind the heat here; in fact, it grew through the heat, then in our somewhat warm fall, it put on a new flush of growth and kept growing… right up until we got a freeze that hit the 20s.
Normally, a mulberry tree would have already quit growing and lost many of its leaves before that happened, but this tree was really confused. The frost froze the tree all the way to the ground that fall. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was an ILLINOIS Everbearing Mulberry, not a Puerto Rican or Hawaiian mulberry! It was supposed to be happy but it didn’t know what to do in Florida’s mild climate. Fortunately, it grew back from the ground in spring and has since adjusted. The experience was a good teacher. If it was a grafted tree I would have lost it.
Here’s another problem that ties in with the point on climate: many of the varieties that are sold in national retail chains are simply inappropriate for your region. In one garden center here in Florida, I saw a variety of fine wine grapes for sale. Our growing zone is technically fine for those grapes, so they were likely ordered with that in mind. However, what the company failed to take into consideration was their complete and utter susceptibility to Pierce’s Disease, a widespread condition that makes it impossible to grow most grape cultivars in Florida. Down here, if it ain’t a muscadine, it’s dead!
I’ve told this story before but it’s worth telling again here: one time I dropped off some fruit trees at a customer’s house and he asked me why his grapes were failing to thrive. Knowing the answer already, I asked where he’d bought them. When he answered with the name of a large retail chain, I said, “Let me guess: they’re champagne grapes? Maybe Concords?” He shook his head yes.
On inspection of the vines, I confirmed the truth. They weren’t muscadines… and they were most certainly on their way to an early grave.
Another time I visited a Home Depot in the middle of the state and saw they were selling Coconut palms. I seriously love coconut palms – but if you plant them basically anywhere north of Palm Beach, they’re dead. Three hours south and they might have lived; otherwise, they’re doomed when the first frost arrives. Buying plants that die is bad prepping. And it’s bad for the wallet.
An additional problem you may face with fruit and nut trees is the chill hours. If a variety doesn’t get enough time below 45 degrees during the winter, it may not fruit at all. If it’s a low chill hour type and you’re in a high chill hour area, it may bloom early every year and lose its blooms to frost. Check carefully to make sure you’re buying a tree that will fruit in your region otherwise you’ll just have a nice lawn decoration.
Another big factor comes into play when you buy from large retailers: care.
I’ve seen some plants that were literally watered to death. The pots were filled with rotting roots. In other cases, they were placed at the end of a display to languish without enough water. In yet other cases, the plant roots had filled up the pots and become completely root bound. This is often a problem with larger trees. Folks like to buy large trees because it feels like they’ll have a big tree sooner. Not true! Often you’ll end up with a stunted tree that takes a long time to recover from its time in the pot, not the flourishing and towering tree you thought you’d have in a year or two. Smaller trees in bigger pots are better than larger trees in smaller pots. Trees will often sit for a long time on display, slowly strangling in their pots without a nurseryman to pot them up to a larger size or to trim the roots to prevent constriction.
As an example, I have three 6′ tall peach trees I bought at Walmart in pots three years ago. I planted them in my yard and they looked good at the time of planting… but have simply sat there for the most part and failed to thrive. Another tree I bought for more money in a larger pot from a careful local nurseryman (Taylor Gardens Nursery) a year later is more than twice the size of those Walmart trees. As a further bit of craziness, the seedling peaches I planted two years ago have beat all of them in growth.
Finding a Good Local Nursery
A nursery owner who loves his trees will love helping you succeed. If they’re willing to answer your questions, make recommendations, plus they have a good reputation locally, great! If they let you inspect the plants will pop a tree out of its pot so you can see the roots, great! Also, if you ever feel like you’re being pushed into buying, feel free to walk away. Gardeners and nursery people are some of the nicest people I’ve run into, however. Unlike car salesman, advertisers and realtors… they’re mostly helpful.
One caveat: nurseries that provide a wide range of ornamental plants as well as edibles sometimes aren’t up to snuff on their fruit trees. If the trees look healthy and are grown locally (ask them if the trees are local!) there’s no reason not to buy from a less knowledgeable nurseryman; however, I’d hit more places and see if you can find people that really like growing fruit. They’re out there.
If you’ve had bad success with buying plants and trees from a garden center or mail order nursery, take heart: it may not have been your fault.
Next time, go local. I’ll bet you enjoy much better success.