Don’t fall for garden store gimmicks

Sometimes it takes me a while to come up with an idea for my weekly article. Sometimes inspiration strikes at the weirdest of times and the column just writes itself.

This week, the latter is the case after a weekend visit to a big-box home-improvement store.

What did this plant do to be abused this way?

While strolling through the garden section of the store, my eyes were immediately fixed upon one of the most tragic things I’ve seen at a garden center in a while: A display full of perfectly innocent succulent plants that had been dipped in various colors of metallic and neon paints sat there, an affront both to my plant scientist mind and eyes.

I snapped a picture of the offending plants and shared it on my Facebook page. After several shares on pages like the national Extension Master Gardener page (which had dozens and dozens of outraged comments), more than 15,000 people had seen, shared or commented on the photo.

The plain truth is that there are several things that retailers do that are questionable, but unknowing gardeners buy them up.

While I found the plants tacky and in bad taste, there are several other reasons why I would suggest that gardeners steer clear of these questionable plants. The major concern is that a coating of paint will interrupt the plant’s ability to perform basic functions.

Plants need light, water and carbon dioxide to make their own food. A coating of paint will block the plant from absorbing sunlight and clog the pores (called stomata) that let it take in carbon dioxide. Blocking the stomata will also reduce the plant’s ability to give off water vapor that will allow it to pull more water and nutrients up from the soil and also take in the oxygen it needs to process its food.

The result, I believe, will be a plant that struggles to thrive over a long period of time. It will have a reduced ability to make its own food or breathe, and therefore exhibit poor growth or a slow decline and eventual death.

This trend of dyeing things is not just for plants either. For Easter, you can find dyed baby chicks and rabbits at some feed stores. I’ve seen dyed fish at the pet store. Now you can even get fish that are fed a special fluorescent dye — the fish glow under black light.

These aren’t the only questionable things you’ll find at a big garden retailer. They do the same trick with poinsettias, though they don’t completely cover the plant so there wouldn’t be the same health effect. You can find orchids that have been injected with dye (orchids are beautiful on their own; why do you need an electric blue one?).

Even simple things are sometimes questionable. Why do big garden centers sell garlic to plant in the spring? It is supposed to be planted in the fall — planting in the spring will result in a tiny bulb.

The answer, of course, is that they sell it because people buy these things. Big-box retailers act as third-party garden dealers. Nursery companies control the supply of plants to the nursery and the retailer doesn’t actually own the plants they sell. They are banking on the fact that only a small percentage of people would return a plant that died.

How do we get garden centers to stop promoting these garden gimmicks?

First, don’t buy them. Tell your friends not to buy them either. These things are market-driven, and if people don’t buy them, there won’t be a reason for companies to produce them.

Second, speak to the manager of the store about what you see. In this case, telling them that painted plants are not good practice and will likely die is a good point to make. You can also contact the store’s regional or national headquarters to complain.

Of course, these days, social media is also an effective tool — a picture of the offending plant shared with the store tagged may alert other gardeners and notify the store of the issue.

I’m not talking about inciting a riot here, but stores need to know that (most) shoppers are smarter than they give them credit. Maybe a little “no painted plants” Twitter campaign is in order.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t fall for garden store gimmicks

  1. Glo Fish are not dyed (although that used to be a more common practice that has fallen out of favor). The are genetically modified, with genes for fluorescence from a coral spliced into their genome. Still controversial, but not dyed.

  2. Bonsai trees at big box stores are usually a gimmick as well. They take a cheap plant, prune it severely, wrap a piece of wire around it, put it in a shallow dish and charge 10x the price for it. They’re not old, trained, or shaped in any way.

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