By the time spring arrives, many of us can't wait to emerge from indoor hibernation and get our hands a little dirty. After the dull grays and browns of winter, it's easy to go overboard buying colorful blooms. To find the best place to get garden supplies on a budget, Cheapism visited three national chains — Home Depot, Lowe's, and Walmart, plus two independently owned nurseries in Austin, Texas. Our shopping list included several common garden tools, seeds for a new vegetable garden, soil, and a few plants, including annuals. Although brands varied across stores, we compared the most similar products we could find.
|Product||Home Depot||Lowe's||Walmart||Independent |
|$8.98||$8.98||$7.84*||$7.99 (1 gal.)|
$8.99 (1 gal.)
|Japanese Boxwood Shrub|
|$8.98||$9.98 (2.5 qt.)||$5.97*||$21.95 (6 qt.)|
$6.99 (6 qt.)
($2.68 for 4 ct.)
$23.88 ($1.99 ea.)
|Multi-Use Hand Sprayer|
(0.75 cu. ft.)
|$4.27*||$4.28||$4.27*||$8.99 (1.5 cu. ft.)|
$5.99 (8 qt.)
|$6.97*||$7.98||$10.72||$10.99 (1 cu. ft.)|
$23.99 (2 cu. ft.)
|Liquid Plant Food|
|$7.48||$7.28||$6.52*||$8.59 (powder) |
|Tomato Seeds, organic|
|Bell Pepper Seeds|
Cheapest Garden Center: Walmart
Walmart emerged the winner on price, with a total of $133.09 for the items on our list. It beat out second-place Lowe's by about $10. The cheaper of the two local garden centers wasn't even in the same ballpark, charging $175.63 — and it didn't carry some of the items on our shopping list. The total at the second local retailer was even higher, coming in $329.72.
Best Value Garden Center: Lowe's
Despite Walmart's edge on price, serious gardeners are probably better off heading to runner-up Lowe's.
- Walmart can't match Lowe's and Home Depot for selection. Only two of the three Walmarts we visited had dedicated areas for plants, trees, gardening tools, and outdoor-living products. As a consequence, selection and inventory was more limited than at Home Depot and Lowe's. We counted fewer than a dozen varieties of annuals and perennials and just a few small trees and shrubs at Walmart, while indoor houseplants were not to be found. Lowe's and Home Depot, on the other hand, had a vast variety of indoor and outdoor greenery, including annuals (often available in a variety of pot sizes and in multi-packs) and perennials, plus vegetables, cacti, succulents, and herbs. At the local gardening centers we visited, inventories were larger than Walmart's but smaller than Lowe's or Home Depot. On the other hand, both indie stores sold native and organically grown plants that the big-box stores didn't carry.
- Many of Walmart's plants had seen better days. To be fair, unseasonably cold February weather wreaked havoc on Texas nurseries just as stores were getting ready to stock up for the spring rush. But the merchandise was in much better shape at other retailers in the same area. Several plants at Walmart were wilted or turning brown at the edges, yet weren't discounted. At the Lowe's we visited, the few unhealthy and unloved plants were quarantined at the rear of the garden center and clearly marked down.
- Employees are scarce at Walmart. At both of the Walmart outdoor garden centers we visited, there was just one associate working. Although friendly, neither of them were particularly knowledgeable when asked basic questions about plants, such as which would do best in partial shade. They also couldn't say when the store would be getting more plants in stock to fill out the rows of empty tables. At Lowe's and Home Depot, there was a small army of workers in the garden center, and those we asked for help were cheerful and competent (although lacking the encyclopedic knowledge we found at the locally owned garden center).
Of course, the shopping experience will vary by location, but the small price premium at Lowe's or Home Depot seems an acceptable trade-off for a more reliably stocked garden center with better plant quality and variety. Still, Walmart is a cost-effective place to stock up on other supplies like basic plants, tools, and soil.
The Case for Local Nurseries
Although we went to the independent nurseries expecting to pay a premium over the chains, we didn't expect the gap to be nearly so wide. Despite the high prices, there are a few reasons not to write off your local garden center:
- Employee knowledge was impressive. A worker who assisted us knew which plants paired well together, how big they would grow, and how often they would bloom throughout the year. The few times she didn't know the answer to a question, other nearby associates did. When we asked about plants that would attract bees and butterflies, she led us right to a large selection of native, pollinator-friendly annuals — and also answered our question about which plants to avoid (like the misleadingly named butterfly bush, which is an invasive species).
- They sell items the big-box stores don't. Neither of the independent garden centers could match the volume or selection we found at Lowe's or Home Depot. However, both stores we visited had a thriving selection of plants, shrubs, and trees, including varieties not available at the chains, such as globe amaranth, prickly pear, and milkweed. We also found an ample selection of organic potting soils, heirloom seed packets, and eco-friendly fertilizers and pesticides (not to mention cute ceramic and terra-cotta pots and planters) that the big-box stores simply don't carry.
- Other services may be available. Unlike Lowe's or Home Depot or Walmart, some local garden centers also offer landscaping services, including onsite consultations, landscape design, installation, yard maintenance, and outdoor lighting. Others have on-staff arborists who can help you choose the right kind of tree for the type of soil in your yard (like the sludgy clay soil in our part of Austin) and treat diseased trees.
As your thumb turns ever greener, don't hesitate to visit your local garden center. While we wouldn't stock up on garden tools there — the premium prices are simply too hard to justify — we came away confident that it's the best place for serious gardeners in search of heirloom, native, and organic plants and growing matter or those with very specific landscaping needs. Plus, you're more likely to find staff who are well versed in the growing requirements of your part of the country. On the other hand, if all you want to do is plant a few marigolds, stick with the big-box stores.
Scott Nyerges contributed to this report.