The best garden centers in the Bay Area

Whether you’re looking to spruce up a small patio or planning some extensive landscaping, a good garden center is a must. The best centers employ experts and, perhaps most importantly, emphasize quality.

Buying plants is not like buying, say, power tools. Plants are alive, each unique and each vulnerable to disease, injury and death. Running a good garden center or nursery requires knowledge, years of experience, organizational skills and a strong commitment to quality. Most garden centers buy – rather than breed – most of what they sell, so there is room for huge variation in purchasing ability and purchasing standards.

To compare local businesses, Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook and collected reviews from area consumers of the garden centers they had used. The checkbook found significant differences from one company to another. Some stores were rated “superior” for “product quality” by at least 80% of their customers surveyed, but several other retailers were rated “superior” on this issue by less than 40%.

Home Depot and Lowe’s received very low ratings from their customers surveyed for quality – their stores scored, on average, lower than almost all independent stores.

Editor’s Note: The Chronicle is in partnership with Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and, a nonprofit consumer group whose mission is to help consumers get the best service and the lowest prices. The checkbook is supported by consumers and does not take any money from the service providers it rates. You can view the Garden Center valuation by Checkbook, including customer reviews, price comparisons and gardening tips free of charge until April 5, 2020, at

However, Home Depot and Lowe’s have done very well in terms of pricing. Lowe’s prices were on average 38% lower than the all store average for comparable items, and Home Depot’s prices were on average 32% lower than the all store average. Unfortunately, Home Depot and Lowe’s received well below average ratings on “product quality”.

Generally, Checkbook finds that price and quality are unrelated, that some of the cheaper stores are also rated highest for quality. Garden centers are different; paying more for plants in garden centers slightly improves your chances of getting better advice, better service, and better product quality. Checkbook found that many of the top-rated stores for quality charge above-average prices, but some stores that score high for quality also have below-average prices.

Undercover Checkbook shoppers checked prices at every store or chain for 27 different plants, like a lavender in a six-inch pot and a false cypress in a # 3 container. For specific plants, Checkbook found huge price differences from nursery to nursery – perhaps more variation than in any topic we cover. For example, for the sansevieria in an 8 inch pot, the prices ranged from $ 19.99 to $ 71.00. Prices for Shiny Abelia in a five-gallon container ranged from $ 14.95 to $ 49.50.

Before you shop, make a plan. Consider the soil type, acidity, drainage patterns, and sun exposure of your garden, and match the types of plants with the areas where they are likely to thrive. Think now about how your property will look and how it will look years from now when your plants have grown. Without a plan, you could end up with an assortment of plants that don’t complement each other in size, shape or color. You might end up with shade where you want the sun to be and your view of or your house obscured. And you could pay for expensive plants when inexpensive plants would do just as well.

Seek advice from gardening websites, friends with attractive gardens, and experts at local botanical gardens. If you want professional help, you can hire a landscaper.

When buying plants:

• Check the roots to make sure they have not dried out. Probe with your finger or look through the drainage holes of a container to make sure the roots are whitish, not brown.

• For shrubs and trees, check weak or broken branches. The bark should not have scars or holes, and pruning cuts should be flush with the branch or trunk.

• Check plants for brown or gray areas or spots on leaves or stems, for signs of disease. And check if there are any bugs.

• During the growing season, make sure there is new growth.

• Get a receipt that shows the common and Latin names of the plants and the size, number purchased, date of purchase, price and warranty. You should also be given instructions on how and where to plant and what size, feeding and spraying will be needed.

• Ask what guarantee you get. Fortunately, although many plant deaths are the result of improper planting or maintenance – in other words, the buyer’s fault – Checkbook has found that most garden centers still offer broad warranties.