I was sitting in the parking lot of one of the big stores that sells hardware, tires, clothes and groceries, but lest I get too specific, I’ll leave it at that. My wife was inside looking for cottage cheese.
I saw a guy carrying a dead stick of a bush like you’d carry roadkill in front of you. He obviously didn’t want “dirt” on his clothes. He was fast-walking right toward the far end of the sales area, pretty much empty since spring. I was fairly sure that he was returning that poor dead plant to the sales counter to ask for a refund.
I’ve been in stores when folks brought plants in for their money back, and I can tell you that, based on a lifetime’s experience in horticulture, 98 percent of those returns are of plants that either weren’t watered properly or that were perhaps not suited to our locale in the first place.
So how can you reduce those odds as you’re buying plants for your fall landscaping projects? Begin by educating yourself before you start buying. Ask questions. One of the great sources of reliable information is always a Texas master certified nursery professional. There are hundreds in Dallas-Fort Worth, and many are available through local retail nurseries.
Also look at Texas-based references to see how the plants you are considering are rated for our part of America. The Texas A&M Horticulture Department’s website is a great resource. Search “Aggie horticulture” for the quickest access online.
One bone I’ve found myself picking recently: The newest USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map says we’re in Zone 8. It’s broken into 10-degree increments of the coldest weather we might expect every winter. That map is generally a fascinating and very useful tool that’s viewable online, but my personal opinion, based on 47 years of living here, is that they’ve made a mistake. That latest map was published in 2012, and it has all of North Texas in Zone 8.
The prior map from 1990 had us right on the edge of Zone 7, with Tarrant County in the very south end of Zone 8. I really think we should be considered Zone 7, because in two winters since 2012 we’ve had enough cold to kill significant numbers of Zone 8 plants. My prediction is that that map is going to get revised, and I’ll bet they won’t wait 15 years to do so.
So our guy may have chosen a Zone 8 plant, and it might have frozen in that January cold spell. But my bet is that’s not the case. Even inattentive gardeners wouldn’t wait that long to effect a return.
So I move on, perhaps out of order, to the second possibility. Maybe our guy didn’t notice how dry his plant had gotten one hot day this past summer. Maybe he was away on vacation or out by the pool. Or, as more often is the case, perhaps he was counting on his sprinkler system alone to keep the plant watered. Most people don’t realize that sprinklers are almost never enough. New plants are grown in lightweight potting soils that dry out far faster than our native black clays. You must hand-water new plants deeply every two or three days all summer for their first couple of years.
Use a quality garden hose and a water breaker or bubbler to soak the ground to the bottoms of their root balls. If you used your sprinklers to do that, the rest of your yard would be a sticky slough.
And now to the real question. Was the guy due a refund? If he was sold a plant that wasn’t well suited to our locale, and if he wasn’t given instructions on how best to care for it, then the answer is yes.
However, the huge majority of the plants I see being brought in for refunds simply weren’t watered properly. You can tell. Each species has its own characteristic appearance when it has dried up and died. If our guy just forgot to water his poor, unfortunate plant, I do not think that’s on the store’s shoulders. That’s how I’d rule if I were the judge.
This happened to be a huge chain store, and I suppose the return of one dead shrub won’t show up on that chain’s profit-and-loss statement. However, my dad taught me at a young age that “right” was “right” and “wrong” wasn’t “right.”
You know that I encourage you to develop relationships with local retail nurserymen — people who are full-time gardeners and who really know and understand what it takes to succeed in gardening in Texas. To compete with the national chains, most of them tell me that they offer the same sorts of guarantees of satisfaction. They say that they feel they have to make those refunds (even though they know what really happened) just to compete in the marketplace.
The questions I suggest people ask of themselves are, “Did the plant die because of something I did? Was I the main cause of this problem?”
You can improve your odds of not having to make trips back for refunds — whatever the reason — by knowing more about the plants you’re considering buying, by shopping at places that feature service and quality and not just low prices, and by establishing a relationship with a full-time professional nursery person who can guide you.