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Experts Compare Flowers From Independents Versus Big-Box Retailers

(CBS) -- As the ground heats up, so does business at garden centers. And let's face it, nothing says Mother's Day like flowers and plants.

CBS 2's Ed Curran did some shopping to see if quality plants can be bought at bargain prices.

Anton's Greenhouse in Evanston got high scores for quality and for low prices in a Consumers' CHECKBOOK magazine survey.

Owner Gary Anton explains: "We grow 90 to 94 percent of everything here and there's a little more pride involved than some places."

The range in prices across Chicagoland is huge. CHECKBOOK Executive Editor Kevin Brasler says he found huge differences in price among similar products.

"Some businesses sell the same size and species of plant for six times what its nearby competitors do," he says.

At Wannemaker's in Downers Grove, 40 bedding plants are $16.99. At Lowe's, 42 are $10.36 -- a 40 percent savings.

A Miss Kim lilac was $46 at The Fields on Caton Farm in Crest Hill, but $33 at Home Depot, which was 28 percent less.

Prices may be lower at big box stores, but Brasler says there is a difference.

"The quality of the plants they sell, according to the customers we surveyed, they aren't as high as the independents," he says.

In an unscientific test, CBS 2 bought plants at three of the stores surveyed:  Wannemakers in Downers Grove, Johansen Farms in Bolingbrook and The Home Depot on North Avenue in Chicago.

To find out more about the quality of the plants, an expert evaluated the purchases. Jim Fizzell not only is a horticulturist, he wrote the book on gardening in Illinois -- in fact, a number of books.

Without knowing where the plants came from, Jim first inspected the Impatiens, then the Marigolds, followed by Begonias.

The basket of Begonias blew him away.

"This is about as nice as you're going to get," Fizzell says. "Can I keep it?"

It was a stunner: five Begonias with 51 blooms and a ton of buds for $14.99. Fizell was surprised to learn they were from Home Depot.

"Good grower!" he said, laughing.

CHECKBOOK's Brasler was surprised, too.

"Maybe it has something to do with the time of the year, maybe that Home Depot just does an unbelievable job compared to the other stores," he says.

Garden centers says if you're only buying by price, the big-box guys will usually win, but there's more to consider.

Wannamaker's and The Fields on Caton Farm say their garden centers offer quality plants that stay consistent through the season.  They have a knowledgeable staff, fresher products and locally grown plants that are ready for Chicago's climate.

CHECKBOOK reviewed quality and price at more than 100 Chicago area garden centers.


Why Pay More?

Big-box stores will save you money, but garden centers in the Chicago area we talked to say that their higher prices are well worth it.

Wannamaker's is a family owned business in Downers Grove that sees loyal, repeat customers every year.  Joe Wannamaker explained the difference when you shop at his store:

-- Their quality is higher

-- They take better care of their plants

-- Wanamaker's gets daily deliveries of plants

-- They offer more variety

-- Knowledgeable people with horticultural degrees work there

-- They provide benefits and profit sharing

-- They support local growers.

At The Fields on Caton Farm in Crest Hill, Brian Neumann is the president.  We showed a Miss Kim Lilac in our news story that sold for 28 percent less at Home Depot. But the Miss Kim that Brian sells is grown right on their farm. It wasn't transported on a truck so it's used to the local climate and soil.

Even items that aren't grown on their own farm are usually grown locally.  He explained why you might spend more at his store than a big-box retailer:

-- He has two landscape architects on staff and a horticulturist

-- Several staffers each have at least five years of experience

--They offer better service, knowledge and quality.

If you're only basing your purchase on price, the big box guys will usually win.  But the family-owned garden centers in our story -- Anton's, Johansen's, Wannamaker's and The Fields on Caton Farm -- say there's a whole lot more to consider when choosing, buying, and planting.

Through special arrangement with nonprofit Chicago Consumers' CHECKBOOK, CBS 2 viewers can access CHECKBOOK's ratings of 104 local garden centers without a subscription until May 25. Check out the advice via this link:

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