Six secrets that separate the gems from the duds

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I know a lot about garden centers. I worked at a big one before Southern Living convinced me to move to Alabama and become a living legend. I waited on customers, unloaded trucks, and passed around a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon with the other guys selling cut Christmas trees out in 34-degree weather in the rain.

In paying my dues, I learned why some nurseries thrive as others fold. Based on our survey results, you value the same qualities I do, awarding Tallahassee Nurseries the top honor. This 82-year-old favorite offers an expansive selection of plants and flowers along with landscape-design services and a cafe serving cold-brew coffee, beer, and wine—even wine slushies. What else makes a winner? Here are Grumpy’s six suggestions.

1. Cheery Welcome

Nothing makes me want to screech into a garden center’s parking lot more than tables and benches filled with tidy rows of colorful plants I can set out today. So, nursery people, put your eyepoppers out front; keep displays filled; move tired plants to the back somewhere; and never show me wilted, dying, or dead ones. That proves you don’t care.

2. Good Selection

Why would I stop at your place for commodity plants when I can buy them at the big boxes for less? Offer lots of options that the megastores don’t, such as dwarf Japanese maples, native azaleas, and angel-wing begonias. And don’t forget houseplants! Those young homeowners with empty rooms are really into them.

3. Clearly Defined Areas

I’m a busy grouch with no time to search the state for what I want. Put the sun plants in one section and the shade lovers in another. Have signs to designate spots for herbs, shrubs, etc.

4. Knowledgeable, Friendly Staff

This is the number one wish of new gardeners, who can’t bear the thought of failure. Help them pick out the right plant. Then tell them how to row it, what else they can put with it, and which type of container will work best.

5. Label properly

I hate having to ask the cost of a plant, in case it’s much more than I want to pay. That’s embarrassing, so I’ll just leave it there. I will, however, buy one that’s mistakenly priced lower than it should be. That’s how garden centers learn.

6. Personal Service

Helping people load their vehicles and putting down paper to keep car interiors clean is a given. Now go the extra mile by publishing an email newsletter, offering customers a “wish list” to record requested plants that aren’t in stock so you can call them when they are, and always greeting folks with a smile—even when you’re stuck selling Christmas trees at 34 degrees in the rain.