Home & Garden Columns

Garden Vartiety: Corporations Budding In On Local Garden Shops

By Ron Sullivan
Friday June 23, 2006

We old coots play a game, based on how long we’ve been in Berkeley: You Shoulda Been Here When. In my circle it runs heavily to vertical samplings of bird populations, politics, public venues: often the interesting little store that filled a niche, got big, got bought, got corporatized, got bland.  

Some of us remember The Nature Company, which to some extent filled the fieldguide niche of the late Lucas Books and had a merrily unpredictable collection of optics, toys, and garden tools (like my favorite switchblade pruning saw) along with the bird feeders, coffeetable books, and art.  

The Nature Company got bought out by some Eastern corporation, then sold back to a founder, then re-sold to become The Discovery Channel Store. By the time Discovery downsized and closed its only Berkeley venue, all it had in common with the original was the “The”—and one knowledgeable employee. Lots of electronic bling, but no fieldguides to speak of, no Bateman or Parnall prints, no inspired garden tools, no complete line of binoculars.  

The story of Smith and Hawken is similar, even sold to the same corporation. All that Ecology of Commerce stuff, and Paul Hawken turned it over like the sheets in a by-the-hour motel.  

Smith and Hawken was always a bit pricey and over-the-top in some departments. Olde propagators’ pots from some cellar near Great Dixter, with preserved mossy rime included, that sort of thing. Garden clothes you couldn’t afford to get dirty. But interesting: “Japanese” farmers’ pants with drawstring ankles and pockets for kneepads. Real Wellington wellies.  

Some tools were big cutlery, all shiny and expensive, and came with an honest lifetime guarantee; I know two professional gardeners who collected on that, and still love their replacements a decade later. My biggest gripe against S&H was the weirdly precious catalogue prose.  

S&H sold top-quality interesting plants then, too. The Berkeley store’s nursery department is gone now, just a lone lavender seedling hanging on in the gravel. The bargain section that was open on weekends has disappeared, too; the stuff there usually seemed overpriced for its condition anyway. But without those bits, it all seems less interesting. 

My impression last week was, “It’s converging on Target, but it’s still more pricey.” The merchandise looked generic and familiar. I actually laughed when I found that S&H sells some of its lines through Target. They need some sort of design backflow control valve, apparently. Target’s big on “accessible design,” but what’s S&H’s reason to exist? The corporate owner —Scott’s Miracle-Gro, of all things—promises a “Renaissance.” Show me. 

Teilhard de Chardin’s “everything that rises must converge” is unsupported speculation, but it looks as if everything that corporatizes must get more boring. 

My advice: Use S&H for a first look and a place to try on Felcos. Ignore the house-brand imitations; they’re almost as expensive, and Felco will probably exist and sell you parts longer than S&H’s latest corporate owners—maintain an interest in that line. Check out any bargains, but don’t spend money without comparison shopping. If you’re going to support a soulless corporation, you might as well do so for less. 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet.