The Thing About Box Store Bargains

The Thing About Box Store Bargains

I know you’ve done it before. You walk into your local box store and head straight for the bargain plant rack. You peak around at all the bargain plants they’re trying to get rid of. You look over at the half dead shrubs, the pots that are so far gone that it’s more of a pot of dirt than a potted plant. Then you come across what I can only describe as the “why is that plant here?” plant. It looks great, the foliage is lush and it looks healthy. There might be one or two damaged leaves but nothing else seems amiss. So why is that plant here?

The reason I think this happens is the difference between the box stores and the “plant area” and the nurseries. Nurseries know what they have and how to take care of it. Box stores tend to worry more about moving the merchandise and they don’t always know about the plants. Now that isn’t always true, many of the folks who have worked at the box stores know a thing or two about plants. It’s just that far more of them don’t than do and as a result it’s why plants end up on the discount racks that probably shouldn’t.

Sometimes the box stores just want shelf space for the next seasonal thing. That’s fine by me because you can find really good deals on plants that have just bloomed and will re-bloom again next year. Like the four gallon pot azaleas I picked up for $1.50 each. They are destined to be planted on the hillside pathway along our slope (which I just realized I need to update you on its progress). They aren’t the Encore™ azaleas and will only bloom in the spring but I’m planning ahead for next year. Besides they give me more planting material for cuttings! But the whole reason the azaleas were on the shelf for such a low price was because they wanted the space to put more seasonal plants – things that are blooming.

Other times the workers at the box store see plants past their prime blooms and stick them on the discount shelf without realizing that they will re-bloom this year. Like the $3 six-pack of Wave™ petunias I bought today. The regular price was almost $9. Wave™ petunias bloom prolifically (in most gardens – I’ve tried petunias for a couple years now but they never seen to amount to anything. “If at first you don’t succeed” right?) and continue blooming all summer. All that was needed was a little trimming and the plants would put on showy blooms for the next customer coming by. Had these been at a nursery you can bet they wouldn’t have been discounted.

It all has to do with the customer base. The box stores attract a wide variety of customers some who are knowledgeable, some who just like to dabble, and some who just like to plant the pretty stuff and hope it grows! It’s the folks who buy the flowers in bloom who they are targeting. After all when you see gorgeous flowers in bloom enmass like you do at the store who wouldn’t be tempted? We all have a bit of impulse buyer inside – hiding – waiting to be let out! Those who are knowledgeable or do diligent research before they buy get the advantage of knowing what makes a good deal on the discount racks.

The nurseries are catering to the gardener, the garden designer, the landscaper, and the person who wants to learn about the plants they are buying. That’s the big advantage in a nursery – you have a plant expert on hand to help you with your decisions. That isn’t always true but in more cases than not it is.

What should you look for in a discount plant to know you are getting a good deal?
Here are a few 6 tips to help:

  1. Avoid plants (especially shrubs and trees) with severe browning or damage. The odds are against you and they may contain disease. Last year I saw ornamental pear trees at the box store with the typical crook shaped branches that accompanies fire blight. I warned the clerk and they were removed very soon after.
  2. Examine the pot. A pot bound plant can be saved with a little root pruning but if you don’t treat the problem by teasing out the roots or pruning you will end up with a plant that will continue to girdle. If you do purchase the pot bound plant makes sure it’s very cheap.
  3. Determine if the plant is a one and done seasonal performer or if it will repeat bloom. I bought one of my best discount plants ever in an ‘Oranges and Lemons’ gaillardia. The blooms were gone but since it was a perennial I knew they would re-bloom with a little deadheading and TLC.
  4. Look for green leaves! If the flowers have faded and the leaves are all green you probably have a nice find for future blooms. 
  5. On corms or bulb plants be cautious. If they are seasonal like with tulips or daffodils and the leaves are brown you’ll probably come away with a deal. Just plant the bulbs and hope for a show in the spring! I’ve seen caladiums frequently on the discount rack with leaf sprouts coming up. No doubt the foliage died but the plant didn’t and it’s trying to regrow the leaves.
  6. Annual Verbena
  7. Know what the plants are supposed to look like before you buy. The annual verbenas for $0.37 I bought are red (I think) but I do know what the form of the plant is like (mounding) and I know that they are easy to grow and maintain (and propagate). If you see a plant you might want look around on the “good plant” shelves and find a match to see if you really want it. Sometimes the match will be there and other times it won’t but it doesn’t hurt to look.
  8. Learn to walk away! That’s hard when you see those cheap prices but if the plant is going to die no matter how much help you give it then you must walk away.

Buying plants on the discount shelf is always a gamble but you can definitely come out ahead if you proceed with a little caution and a little more knowledge.  That’s why I love reading other blogs. Everyday I find some new plant I haven’t grown yet and when I run across it in a nursery I remember a little about it. The best tip I can give on any subject is to seek out and learn all you can!


Dave has written since 2007. He gardens on an acre and a half where he raises his 4 children. He enjoys growing vegetables, herbs, and propagating plants. Dave has a side business growing and selling heirloom vegetables and herb plants through Blue Shed Gardens and works as a real estate agent in Spring Hill, TN.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. The problem for the pretty flowers you see at the store, the ones they are making room for, that are already in bloom is that they are probably just about done blooming too! No fun. Plus, sometimes I like to try to find plants even when it isn't technically their bloom time yet and you can't find them! I'd rather find them before they bloom so I can enjoy them blooming in my own garden!

  2. Today, I went into the bigboxbully that was an import from you guys. It's great for cat food and extra strength ibuprofen, but it irks me that they have a garden centre too. I went in specifically to study what they had for plants, and it's very obvious that they came from somewhere else–I would say from the US, not from any part of Canada, just by the advanced state of growth the shrubs were in. They were way too far ahead to be safely out out yet; they haven't been hardened off, just thrown off a truck sometime in the past week or so, and many of the deciduous shrubs were showing signs of damage. I don't buy anything live from them, with the exception of houseplants during the winter. I don't have a problem with the store being there–but it's inappropriate to bring in stock grown in Florida, for example, and expect it to cope with our climate, with our (normally) chilly springs and our bombastically cold winters, with their freeze-thaw cycles. But people go in and buy stuff because for some, it's all about the dollar. Then it dies, and they don't learn but go back and buy more stuff next year.

    Now, don't ask me what I did buy this week, and what my buddy threw in along with the things I insisted on purchasing…he figures if he propagated it, he'll give it to me, but if he had to bring it in from elsewhere, I buy it at wholesale price. Hence the four hellebores, one tree peony, two viburnums…:-)

  3. I work for Lowe's as the live nursery specialist in my store. My customers know me by name and are becoming accustomed to just asking the cashier to call me to the front. We've got a new policy now. You'll be finding a lot more deals like this all summer long. As soon as the blooms are gone, it's on to the clearance rack. I hate it, but it does improve sales. And I get to know a lot of peoples' gardens by what they buy.

  4. Shawn Ann,

    I definitely agree with you! I would prefer to see the whole process – the growth – the budding – the flowering everything in my garden. I definitely prefer buying the younger plant.


    I understand that issue. They are all the time starting things too early for people to reasonably pant in the ground here. They want to get a jump on the season and get people to buy buy buy. I don't buy much anymore from those stores and when I do it's on the discount rack. I really prefer the local nurseries but even they ship things in. I know I bought a plant the other day that came from Wisconsin in a nursery – not a box store. Shipping south though is a whole lot easier than shipping north!


    I guess its all about the large store concept. It's good for the consumer who finds a nice deal. In my opinion that is worse for the BBS who could have kept that 6 pack of petunias on the shelf and sold it for almost 9 bucks. They lost nearly $6 on that one item. I would recommend a holding area somewhere until they re-bloom then pop them back out again. But I suspect space and manpower to take care of it all are limited.

  5. I've bought many discounted plants at Lowe's and overall have had success. The best buys were the mixed containers – some of the plants had become leggy or were no longer blooming. I separated the plants and put them in the ground or in new pots. Often those mixed containers contained perennials. I have columbine blooming now that was in one of them. I've never paid full price for wave petunias – always wait for the first of the season to quit blooming and be moved to the discount rack.

  6. I was doing just this today. Didn't find as many great bargains as you but they did have quart perennials marked down to $1.99. I thought that was a good deal. Love those big box stores! Your azaleas are perfect.

  7. I always head straight to the distressed racks…love to rescue plants.

  8. I bought lots of plants last year from the big box store that were stressed by the drought. Some regular watering and judicial trimming and they were fine. This particular store does not have irrigation and the plants have to be watered by hand, but they will not hire extra people to water. How do I know – because I used to work there. But their loss is my gain.

  9. I too head straight to the discount shelf & at times have had a very good result.

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