BY ANNIE HUSTON, BIRDSALL & CO.
When I arrived in Denver from my native France in 1979, I found my little piece of heaven in this city. The little cowtown I moved to has certainly evolved over the decades, but I’ve never regretted building a life and family here!
One of my first discoveries was a blissful garden center called Paulino’s. In their greenhouse, I wandered and always found a plant or an annual basket that would bring me so much joy. Over the years, I got to know the family members who owned it. They taught me about gardening in Colorado, and I religiously attended the classes of their master grower at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Instead of going to the mall, I went to their store to find a treasure to take home or just to smell the blooms of their gigantic plumeria. Once I became a professional container gardener, I brought my children along after school to help me gather plants for new projects. They could recognize a healthy plant before they could count. The greenery, humidity, and the smell of fresh soil in the greenhouse was enchanting for the three of us.
Our Sunday outings as a family were often garden centers, a lot of them still thriving in our Denver metro neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen the closures of many independent garden centers. Independent garden centers are a labor of love, and faced with high property taxes, labor issues, and the high cost of utilities to grow plants, some of them decided to close their doors instead of continuing the struggle. The properties were developed and a piece of our community slowly unraveled.
Sure, big box stores have some plant material inventory easily accessible to the consumers if they are on site the day after the delivery. But after a few days, these plants suffer from neglect, over or under watering, and will show signs of disease due to inadequate horticultural care. An independent garden center will be staffed with people who are knowledgeable and who care about the well-being of plants. They want you to go home and be a successful gardener. They educate, advise, and inspire you to be a green thumb. It’s like going to an independent bookstore to get book recommendations from staff who love reading as much as you do. You can certainly purchase books at Costco for a fraction of the price, but if you’re an avid reader and need advice for out-of-the-box reads, your neighborhood bookstore is the place you trust. The same goes with garden centers. You’ll get plenty of petunias grandiflora in a big box store, but what about the little gems you see in garden design magazines? How do your pair them with other plants needing the same watering? How do you get out of the rut of using the same plants year after year? How do you get inspired? Where do you go if you want to experiment with something new and exciting?
The pandemic years taught us that we all thrive in the small interactions with our fellow humans. What better setting than a biophilic environment full of people with the same interests and hobbies, who are willing to share success stories or disappointing experiences? Master gardeners work in garden centers to share the knowledge acquired over years of practical trials. They’ve made all the mistakes, hoped for a magical microclimate for a particular plant, and know better now. They impart that passion to newcomers to gardening. Google can answer queries, but will it look at pictures on your phone and give a design recommendation? I think not.
Plants are expensive, and then you have to water them, feed them, talk to them. Nobody likes to watch a beloved plant die. Most of us take it personally. But the upside to gardening success is huge. There’s no better feeling than being complimented on your garden by a passing neighbor, the best tomatoes are the ones we grow ourselves, the best bouquets are the ones from our cut flowers, and what about those French radishes not available in the grocery stores?
Ultimately, independent garden centers provide a sense of community unique to each neighborhood. As the owner of a garden center, nothing is more humbling than a customer telling us that she finds her bliss in the store. We give a chance for people to take a few minutes away from their daily lives, to take in the peaceful nature of being surrounded by plants. We’ll recognize customers and ask about their plants. It feels good to be known, acknowledged for our needs and preferences. Simple pleasures of life.
My neighbor and I have a pact. She needs to have blooms on her front porch because that’s my view from my house, and I’ll oblige by keeping my front yard adequately groomed and blooming. In Wash Park, we have dog walkers and joggers who give their opinions on front yards as they pass by. My gigantic cast stone frog is a constant source of amusement for the kids on strollers. (Got it at a garden center!)
The moral of the story is that small businesses bring joy and community to our neighborhoods, and independent garden centers are part of that. We make friends, create bonds with fellow gardeners, beautify our yards with unique plants, help the environment with pollinator gardens, find solutions for our hell strips, show pride of home ownership, and have a lot of fun while doing all of it.