Are Local Garden Centers Feeling the Pressure From Corporate Chains?
“I’m a hard hitting journalist,” I think as I approach the building in my ratty Iron Maiden shirt. My Colorado Bro hat is already soaked through with sweat because the A/C in my car is broken and stuck on the hottest setting. “I’m a professional, covering the heavy topics.” I’ve got my to-go tumbler brimming with iced coffee so I can have something to do with my hands if I get anxious or need to buy time to think. I sit down at the little stone table they have out back for employees, pull out my two dollar notebook – the irony of its place of purchase being entirely lost on me – and hit record on the phone I’ve gone into debt to afford.
“Do you feel any pressure from big box stores?”
“No, I don’t.”
For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to get in contact with various garden centers to set up interviews for this story. I went to a certain Mega Chain owned by a certain Mega Wealthy family and checked their prices for plants–and purchased my two dollar notebook. I happen to work at the Loveland Garden Center on the days where I’m not chasing the freelance dragon, and this Mega Chain’s offerings are obscenely low for what they’re selling; about half the price of what we offer at the Garden Center. One thing I noticed, however, was the state of their plants. More than a few were under watered and wilting, and I thought that would reinforce my angle for the story. I was gathering damning evidence like the main character of a certain book I recently reviewed. I was going to single-handedly take down this Mega Corporation. There would be boycotts and rioting. It wouldn’t surprise me if I was given the key to the city.
“They’re quality can be good if you get it right off the truck,” Kevin says.
Or, maybe not.
I’m speaking with Kevin and Debbie Weakland, owners and operators of the Loveland Garden Center. The sun sits high and hot in the sky, and petals from the tree lilac fall around us like a Kurosawa samurai flick.
“You know, giving people the desire to be a gardener… they’ve done some of that, and that makes our business better.”
Luckily, I have a backup plan. Having worked at a garden center, the sheer amount of business we get during the busy season is baffling, so just in case I were to bump up against something as story-halting as “no, I don’t,” I have a Plan B.
“How has inflation and the Pandemic affected business?”
“Oh man,” Kevin says, brows raised. I’ve got him. We’re back on track to take down Big Box. I might not receive the key to the city, but a gold medal is still fine. “If May of 2020 was a full year, it would have been the second best year we’ve ever had.”
To hear them tell it, they’d run out of stock by the end of the month. With everyone being forced home, we were all looking for new hobbies, and once the sourdough lost that “New Hobby Smell,” many of us turned to plants. It makes sense; plants require care. Not nearly as much as a dog or cat – relieving when you find yourself in a catatonic state of wondering whether or not the world is ending – and you can keep track of days by how often you’re watering them. As it turned out, the world didn’t end, and the plants stuck around.
I left the interview defeated. Not slamming-the-steering-wheel-in-the-rain defeated, it wasn’t set to rain for another day or so, but defeated all the same. The angle I was taking with this story had fallen apart. For the sake of this riveting, edge-of-your-seat narrative, I immediately went home and scheduled another interview–in reality I spent the next week and a half thinking of a way to reform the story before remembering that there wasn’t a story at all without more interviews.
I managed to get Don and Lee Weakland of The Flower Bin in Longmont on the phone. Yes they’re related to Kevin, yes it’s lazy journalism, and yes Kevin told me their days off and when they take lunch so I could get a hold of them; what of it.
“Do you feel any pressure or competition from big box stores?
“Well, yeah,” Don responded, curtly. Now we were getting somewhere! I was back on track for whatever award they give top performing journalists, or at least the equivalent of an Oscar nod. “We’ve been open 52 years and there’s always been competition from somebody like that. We basically ignore [them].”
I ask about inflation and the pandemic, my future acclaim slipping through my fingers, and receive largely the same answer. “It’s been really good for us, but really bad for other businesses.”
Well, what the hell was I going to write about? Nobody wants to read a feel-good story, do they? The News is supposed to be unsettling, moving, and informative. This isn’t award winning, hard hitting journalism. There isn’t a story here.
It was around the time I was suffering this crisis of faith, that I realized that I was rooting for an imagined villain in the story. I wanted Big Box to have a stranglehold on the market so I could pull the wool from the eyes of the masses. This doomsayer mindset I was stuck in revealed a larger issue. In the 24 hour news cycle, we are bombarded by downers so often that we become desensitized to violence and bigotry and hate and think, “well, the world is going to shit.” But, why wouldn’t people want to hear something pleasant? Sometimes, in real life no less, the Good Guys win. Sometimes they survive the shit hitting the fan.
The Loveland Garden Center was founded in 1992; The Flower Bin has been around since the 70s. They’ve run into their roadblocks–in 1996 the roofs of the hoop houses at the Loveland Garden Center were crushed in a snowstorm–but mostly they have been just fine. The pandemic, which put so many of us out of work, was good for garden centers. They were able to keep their workers employed despite the Apocalypse. They were able to thrive. The Big Bad Corporation and the Big Bad Economy doesn’t always put the Mom and Pops of the world out of business. Sometimes David doesn’t have to fight Goliath, and that’s okay.
But why? Why is it that of all the businesses destroyed by the wrecking ball of Big Box, garden centers remain largely unscathed? An answer can be found in the garden department of the Mega Store from which I gathered my damning evidence. Each time I’ve been , there has been a common recurring theme: lack of quality and care. More often than not the department is empty, the plants yellowing and crispy, and there is a general sense of dereliction, which isn’t really very good for plants. The more you know.
In an era where a dish set from Walmart is functionally the same as from Target, garden centers remain unaffected because living things need time, attention, and respect. This principle is so heavily contradicted in the lack of care shown to the plants in the Big Box garden departments. You can leave a plate or cup in the cupboard for months and, unless you’ve entered the Twilight Zone, I’m willing to bet my very impressive salary that it wont die or begin wilting. The same can’t be said about an alocasia or an allium – oh wow, botanical names, this guy knows his stuff.
If anything, you buy a plant from Big Box, nurse it back to health, and realize, “Oh hey, that wasn’t so bad.”
But then you go to a real garden center that cares.
I started this, looking for conflict, some sort of push or pull between small business and corporation and found instead that, actually everything is “all good.” Garden centers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, because caring for plants isn’t something chain stores excel at. And those of us who love our gardens won’t settle for yellowed leaves and malnourished plants when picking out our newest additions…
Oh, and the Mega Store was Walmart, in case that wasn’t painfully obvious.SUPPORT LOCAL MEDIA-DONATE NOW!