• Kenton Seth

Double Bottom Line Gardening

by Kenton Seth:

I swear that when I’m an old guy with nothing to lose and someone says, “Yeah, I don’t buy from the local nursery; it’s just more expensive than the big box store,” I will smack that person across the head with my rusty cane. Because by then I hope to goodness there still are local nurseries.


It’s time to stop looking just at the bottom line and also consider the double bottom line: the other costs and benefits of something you buy (or sell.) Generally I think that when you pay little to nothing for something, you’re likely paying for it elsewhere. An app developer once told me, “If you don’t pay for a product, then you are the product.” Sometimes this means cheaper materials, or exploitation of someone or something – data mining, underpaid workers or pillaged environment. Yes, all sad, gross things.


No one is unaware that we have become completely seduced by the alluring oversimpli­fication of value as a single unit of measurement: money. Money isn’t evil, but we’ve grown to rely on it as our only measure of value. The pleasure of simply buying something gives us a quick high that rivals and threatens the satisfaction of actually using the thing. Perhaps even less arguable has been the race to the bottom of the bottom line. Suppliers and demanders are both at fault, enabling one another in a toxic relationship where low cost is critical, cheap is God. It may have become the single most important factor when we shop and make decisions. Where has it gotten us?


Who understands a plant and can offer insights into its needs better than its actual grower? Yet it is becoming increasingly rare that we can buy plants from the place that grows them.


The $64 Tomato is a playful book that points out the absurdity of perfectly monetizing one’s garden experience. It’s true; it may be more expensive to grow your own tomatoes, but… I don’t need to even finish that sentence for the readership of a garden magazine. You all know that the value of flowers, vegetables, gardens, and plants expands universally wider than a dollar sign.

Above: Foothills native Oenethera howardii, Howard's Evening Primrose, (above) and Teucrium sp. 'Harlequin’s Silver’ (below), a Harlequin’s exclusive, both grown onsite & pesticide free at Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder, a neonic-free nursery & garden center. Photos: Eve Reshetnik Brawner

You’ve probably read about the reduction in nutrients in produce in the last half century; you may have even read the arguments that it is less caused by soil depletion and de facto nutrient mining than by breeding plants for high yields, reliable storage, and unblemished shipping. And you certainly know that a grocery store carrot may have all the delicate flavor of a candlestick and a tomato could just as well be a sad water balloon compared to your own homegrown produce. For you, value is in the quality.


My ears have been soiled by the complaint that the mail-order nursery Plant Delights is expensive, charging no less than $11 for a quart pot. This nursery literally sells taxa, including plenty of American natives, you cannot buy elsewhere on earth! There are more native species that are impossible to buy than are available for common commerce – a problem that only a roadtrip-ready seed hunter can get around. So be grateful and supportive of those who grow good plants for your own local climate!


As a person who worked for years in nurseries and now buys from them for a living, it’s commonplace and not surprising that the more difficult or slow-to-produce plants are rarely priced accordingly. The profit from easier flower crops subsidizes their existence. What’s worse, when the nursery market gets difficult, innocent local nurseries are forced to forego the tricky plants. I remember a perennial-plant connoisseur regular at the late Timberline Gardens passing a frown over plume poppies and cliffrose to find plants more exotic, that filled a pot more. Oh how spoiled we were! Can you now buy either of those around Denver?

Above: Remember when everyone was lining up to see the Corpse Flower bloom at Denver Botanic Gardens a few years ago? Amorphophallus titan is available from Plant Delights. Why gripe about the cost of plants at a nursery that propagates and sells some of the rarest, choice species on the planet?

Alternately, big box stores with their disgusting no-questions-asked plant warranties, (which I swear breeds and encourages bullies and liars), sell gallon plants below ten dollars. These plants are grown lush and weak, filling semis that rumble in from wet climates, sometimes saturated in pesticides to responsibly cross state lines without spreading scary bugs. All so you can buy a plant with genetics and personal history that likely impede thriving here anyway. At least it was cheap, right?


Expertise is something else we starve by buying cheap. Who understands a plant and can offer insights into its needs better than its actual grower? Yet it is becoming increasingly rare that we can buy plants from the place that grows them. You can help by supporting local and supporting experts. Shell out for the more expensive plants. Don’t be so afraid of the ones that look like twigs in a pot if your nurseryperson knows this is par for the course until it’s in the ground, after which it becomes the cat’s meow – in forte.


I like to buy my bread-and-butter plants from the nurseries I value most, not from the cheapest. Likewise, I think we all have a collective power, the very one we used to create this best-price-circus we live in. We can use it to put positive pressure on businesses and institutions so they pay attention to that second bottom line. They made a profit this year. Did they also do something good for the world? Organizations are already thinking about this because we can see them trying to improve their image. We will have to get good at ascertaining the truth since they too are suffering from the erstwhile addiction to profit.


We can also be forgiving and understanding of small mistakes made by local growers. If they make a mistake in harvest it may just mean they are fortunate enough not to have a corporate overseer threateningly breathing down their neck. I’ll support that. Give me that bruised tomato! Ironically, those whose hearts are aligned to the charitable, non-monetary bottom line may struggle to put on the profiteer’s cap that ensures they make enough good decisions to stay in business. We must encourage them to be profitable too! You can’t keep up the good work if you no longer exist.


You’re probably already familiar with these basic ways to see value beyond the almighty dollar, but I think we could stand to see it more clearly in non-profits, public gardens, and plant clubs. Perhaps we’ll find ways to measure it, just as a self-check. Above all, whether you are a home gardener, designer, or director of an organization, when you think of your gains and losses, don’t forget the mission. Next time we buy plants, seed or material online or in person let’s ask if we, and our suppliers, are cultivating a good bottom line. A double bottom line.

Kenton J. Seth is a hands-on garden designer based in Fruita, CO. His small nursery supplies plants for his native gardens, meadows, and crevice gardens—the subject of a book he’s currently co-authoring. He writes about new, fun plant stuff at kentonjseth.blogspot.com. See his work at Paintbrushgardens.com