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; Menards, a large regional chain based in the Midwest; and a local, independently owned nursery in the Dayton, Ohio, area. Our shopping list included several common garden tools, seeds for a new vegetable garden, soil, and a few plants, including annuals (petunias, marigolds, begonias, and pansies). Although brands varied across stores, we compared the most similar products we could find.
|Garden Hose (50 ft.)||$9.98||$9.98||$7.94*||$9.87||$19.99|
|Garden Gloves (nitrile-coated)||$3.98||$3.98||$4.22||$1.49*||$7.99|
|Multi-Use Hand Sprayer||$6.62||$5.96||$4.92*||$4.99||$14.99|
|Garden Soil (6 cu. ft.)||$23.82||$23.88||$23.64*||$29.28||$35.96|
|Potting Soil (2.5 cu. ft.)||$13.96||$13.94||$12.50||$12.48*||$24.98|
|Liquid Plant Food (64 oz.)||$10.98||$12.47||$10.94*||$10.94*||$24.99|
|Tomato Seeds (2 packets)||$3.18||$3.18||$2.88*||$3.18||$3.98|
|Cucumber Seeds (2 packets)||$2.70*||$2.70*||$2.88||$2.98||$3.58|
|Bell Pepper Seeds (2 packets)||$3.18||$3.18||$2.88*||$2.98||$3.58|
|Rosemary (2 plants)||$7.96||$7.96||$5.88||$5.76*||$9.98|
|Rhododendron (3 plants)||$59.94||$50.94*||$62.97||$74.64||$107.99|
|Annuals (12 plants)||$3.98||$3.96||$3.76||$3.56*||$9.96|
Walmart emerged the winner on price, with a total of $181.47 for the items on our list. It beat out second-place Lowe's by just $5.56, or about 3 percent. Menards lagged the national chains, with a total $22.60 higher than Walmart. The local garden center wasn't even in the same ballpark, charging a whopping $415.92 — $234.45 more than Walmart and more than twice the total anywhere else. Every item on our list cost more at the independent nursery than at the chain stores.
Despite Walmart's win, budget-savvy gardeners are probably better off heading to runner-up Lowe's. Here's why:
- Plant selection was paltry at Walmart and robust at Lowe's. Of the five stores we visited, Walmart had the fewest plants by far. There were a fair number of annuals, small trees, and shrubs, but the selection of indoor plants was sparse, and there were no perennials to speak of. Lowe's, on the other hand, had a wider variety of plants than any other store except our pricey local garden center.
- Many of Walmart's plants looked like they'd seen better days. To be fair, unseasonably cold spring weather has wreaked havoc in the Midwest, but the merchandise was in much better shape at other stores in the same market. Many plants at Walmart looked close to dead and were not discounted. At Lowe's, most plants appeared healthy; a few that weren't were set aside and clearly marked.
- Walmart's garden center felt disorganized compared with Lowe's. Shrubs and trees spilled from the garden center into the middle of the parking lot. When we questioned several plants' prices, we were told they were actually mismarked, and cost half what the price tag said. At Lowe's, plants were grouped logically and priced correctly.
- Employee knowledge was scant at Walmart. There was a single associate working in Walmart's garden center, and he was reticent when asked the most basic questions about plants, such as which would do best in partial shade. He 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, 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 local independent garden center).
Of course, the shopping experience may vary by location, but the small price premium at Lowe's seems an acceptable trade-off for a more reliably stocked garden center with better plant quality and variety. Walmart is a cost-effective place to stock up on other supplies like basic tools and soil, however, especially for a beginner or casual gardener. A dedicated hobbyist or pro might want to spend a bit more on a higher-quality rake or trowel that can withstand rough treatment year after year.
Our experiences were better at Home Depot and Menards than at Walmart but also underwhelming. Plant selection was thinner than expected at both places. Some plants had been hidden away inside due to a cold snap, and associates couldn't tell us exactly where to look for certain varieties. Still, both stores were more organized than Walmart, and somewhat redeemed themselves with a wider selection of gardening tools and landscaping supplies such as mulch and stone for hardscapes.
Although we went to the independent nursery expecting to pay a premium over the chains, we didn't expect the gap to be nearly so wide. We could have bought nine oscillating sprinklers at Walmart for less than the cheapest one at the independent nursery (although it was undoubtedly more durable and powerful).
Despite the high prices, there are a few reasons not to write off the local garden center:
- Employee knowledge was impressive. A worker who assisted us rattled off both the Latin and common names of various shrubs and flowers and spoke from memory about the sun and water needs of each. She knew which plants paired well together, how big they would grow, and what the blooms and leaves looked like throughout the year. The few times she didn't know the answer to a question, other nearby associates did. When we complained about deer in our yard, she not only knew which plants to avoid, she guessed exactly where we lived and refined her recommendations, because she knew the area's abundant trees offered plenty of shade.
- There were tons of plants, and all were healthy. Our local garden center had a notably larger and healthier selection of plants, shrubs, and trees, as well as some unusual varieties not available at the chains and several perennials that we initially hoped to price out at all the stores but were nowhere to be found at the big-name retailers. Annuals, herbs, and other plants that couldn't stand the cold were safely tucked away in a cavernous greenhouse. (Note that the better selection extended to plants only — the range of tools and gardening supplies was much more limited, consisting almost exclusively of higher-end brands.)
- Other services were available. For customers who want professionals to handle an outdoor project, the local garden center offered plenty of landscaping services, including onsite consultations, landscape design, hardscaping, installation, yard maintenance, and outdoor lighting. There were even on-staff arborists who could 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 to go for plant quality and variety, as well as expert answers from workers who know how to help gardens thrive in the local area.