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The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

As September turns to October, garden center owners fixate on their remaining stock of unsold trees, shrubs and perennials. They face the unappealing possibility that they might actually have to pay someone to replant those maples and azaleas lest their roots freeze over the course of the approaching winter.

The more appealing alternative, of course, is to get me to buy them.

And so, at this time of year, the offers come. First in a trickle and then a flood. Take 30% off. Buy one and get a second one at half price. HUGE markdowns. The really clever garden centers send me colorful, floral-themed plastic cards with my name pre-printed on them together with the massive discount to which I am entitled if I act immediately.

Then, they make it really irresistible: they throw in pizza or maybe ice cream.

I once succumbed to an invitation to a large garden center’s end-of-season sale because they parked an ice cream truck in the middle of their container display area. While I unwrapped a Dove Bar, someone loaded a viburnum in the trunk of my car. Another time, I ate a piece of delicious grilled corn and somehow purchased an amelanchier. One memorable year I enjoyed a slice of an open-oven grilled pizza and found myself the owner of a Japanese maple (acer japonica expensivus) so special that it requires its own trust fund.

None of this is the fault of garden center owners. By the end of September, gardeners’ thoughts have gravitated to the post-season, yet autumn is the near-ideal time to plant trees and shrubs. In reality, they’re doing me a favor.

My problem, of course, is that I’ve run out of room for new stuff. But because the prices are so good we go looking anyway… and invariably bring something home.

The most excruciatingly wonderful discovery is the ‘pallet sale’. This is the garden center industry’s finest invention; their contribution to the pantheon of marketing. Take a pallet. Fill it with roughly a dozen trees or shrubs and top it off with half a dozen perennials. Mark the price at roughly a third of full retail.

That’s how we acquired our fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). This was, of course, back when we had room for new specimen plants. Betty really wanted that fringe tree but had chafed at the price for a decent-sized one. So, we bought the pallet (and got its contents home in a Saab convertible in only four trips) and suddenly, we had not only a great looking fringe tree, but also a pair of boxwoods, two rhododendron, three azalea, a climbing rose and enough summer flowering perennials to feed an army of birds. That was seven or eight years ago.

We bought the pallet because of the fringe tree. We didn’t really ‘need’ the other plants. But there’s always room for another attractive rhododendron, even though today I am hard-pressed to remember which of the twenty rhodies on the property are the two that came off that particular pallet (confession: we have succumbed to pallet sales more than once). The other plants found appropriate sites.

Except for the boxwoods. For years the boxwoods from that pallet sat at the edge of our woods, completely aloof from the rest of the landscape. What can you possibly do with just two boxwood shrubs? For most of that time, had we known of a home for unwanted Buxus sempervirens, we would have sent this pair packing.

But something unexpected happened: they thrived on neglect, probably muttering to one another how unappreciated they were by their owners. Today, they make a magnificent statement, twin pillars that are prominently visible from the window from which this is written.

The moral of the story is that serendipity ought to play a role in every landscape and those autumn sales can be the catalyst for a horticultural adventure. Carpe diem.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


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