Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Much Ado About Garden Centers

If you're interested in pollinators at all, I'm sure you've heard about this study (http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2013-08-bee-die-offs-new-tests-find-bee-killing-pesticides) that found "trace amounts" of neonic pesticides in 54% of "bee friendly" plants tested from Home Depot, Lowes, Target, and other big garden centers. I won't go into what neonics are or how they work (there is some info in the link above), but suffice to say, right now that class of pesticide is being blamed for the massive bee die-offs we've all been hearing about.

As a result of this study, I've seen a lot of petitions going around that demand these major garden centers to stop selling plants treated with these pesticides, and also to stop selling the pesticides themselves. I've also been hearing a lot of threats to completely boycott any of the stores that sell the pesticides. These are big, big stores, and as of last weekend, none had responded to the petitions or to the results of the study.

Since there had been no response, I decided to do a little bit of research.

There is a Home Depot about a mile from my house, and I've bought lots of plants there in the past. I hadn't shopped for plants there this year, but I decided to go take a look around. When I stepped into the nursery during the last week of September, I was amazed by what I saw....


Bees everywhere.

Honey bees, bumble bees of all sizes, little, tiny bees, too. There was even a Monarch butterfly!

They were even on plants where I would never expect to find a bee: Pansies, mums, and some of the other annuals.

I am not a pesticide expert, but my hope was that seeing all these bees around so late in the summer meant that these plants hadn't been treated with anything (too) harmful, because wouldn't it have affected the bees by now? I could be totally wrong about that, but on the surface, my first impression- it seemed like a positive thing.

I found one of the employees working in the garden section and pointed out all of the bees to him, and asked if he knew if the plants were being treated with any pesticides. He told me that the Home Depot themselves don't apply pesticides or fertilizers to any of the plants (I don't know if that goes for ALL Home Depots or just this one), but that is all done by the nursery who supplies the plants to Home Depot. (He also noted that the nursery had been full of bees all summer, not just now.)

 He was able to find me a representative from the nursery who was at the store that day and I was delighted to speak to her directly.
"I was just wondering- are these plants treated with any pesticides? The neonics that have been in the news lately....?" I asked.
"No. Only good for bees." was her response.
"Oh, yes, well the bees really seem to love these plants....."
"Yes. Good for bees."
"....But I was wondering what kind of pesticides you use?"
"Only good for bees. Yes."

Hmmmm. This wasn't exactly the enlightening conversation I was hoping to have. I thanked her for her answers and I left.

When I got home, I found out the supplier of my local Home Depot's plants (and many Home Depots in MD, VA, DC, WV, NJ) is a place called Bell Nursery.
Now we're getting somewhere!
I sent an email via their website, asking about the pesticides, and anxiously awaited a response. I wasn't sure if I would even get a response.
Sure enough, I was delighted to receive one, just an hour or two later. I was told that Bell doesn't use "that class" of pesticides, and they haven't used them for years, and that they are Veriflora Certified.
Veriflora Certification honestly meant nothing to me, and I wasn't sure what "that class" of pesticides meant. The Bell Nursery contact and I emailed back and forth a few times- the person I was emailing with had not heard about the study and frankly was shocked. I gently asked multiple times for more specific information on the pesticides that are used, but I only got the response: "We don't use that class of pesticides."

Again, I'm no expert, but it would seem from what I've read that neonics are in a class all their own, and perhaps that should have been specific enough.

But it didn't explain why 'trace amounts' of those pesticides were found on plants from a DC area store. According to the study, it was a Home Depot in the DC area (and a Lowe's) that had plants that tested positive for the neonic pesticides. (Check out page 13 in my link above for details about the study.) Bell Nursery couldn't (didn't) give me an answer on this. 

Next, I wrote to Veriflora, asking about the types of pesticides that are allowed under their certification standards. I haven't gotten a response back.

Even though I didn't get exactly the answers I was looking for, I do think I have figured out why Home Depot, Lowes, Target, and the others haven't responded. They're huge, huge corporations and their plants are supplied from various nurseries all over the country. It is probably impossible for them to reply with a single statement that would cover the policies of all of the stores in the country at this time. Bell Nurseries supplies the plants to just one region of Home Depot- who knows how many plant suppliers they have in total. Or Lowes. Or Target. Or the others.

Right now if we want change- if we want to see these pesticides no longer being applied to plants at these top retailers, I suggest we go to the source. Start the conversation. Go to your local major garden center. Find out who grows and supplies their plants. Let them know why you're asking. Then contact the source. Ask what pesticides are used and let them know your concerns. If the nurseries' answers aren't satisfactory to you, let them know this as well- and tell the store to which they're supplying their plants. These nurseries are HUGE operations and in a lot of cases, probably the only places capable of meeting the demands of these huge retailers. A boycott can be an effective tool, but I think at least starting off with a dialog is helpful.

I get that, ultimately, supporting small, local, native plant nurseries that promise not to use pesticides is really the best plan. But not everyone has access to those kinds of places.... and wouldn't it be great to see the huge corporations making a positive change, too?

If you contact your local garden center and/or their supplier, please let me know (in the comments or on Pollinator Plates' facebook page- www.facebook.com/PollinatorPlates) what you learn! 

(***End of post disclaimer*** I'm not in any way trying to demonize Home Depot or Bell nurseries- in fact, I'm hoping to do the opposite. I'd love to keep up conversations with both places and pass along what we learn, and I hope what we learn will be things we WANT to hear- that the pesticides are NOT being used on the plants. I posted specifically about these two companies because Home Depot in the DC area [though not which specific one] is named in the study, and Bell Nursery is their supplier, and supplies all of Virginia Home Depots as well- and most of my blog audience is in Virginia.)


  1. It's for this very reason that I'm growing from seed all my pollen producing annuals next year. I just don't trust the nurseries not to lie to me about what they're selling. For them, it comes down to profit. Bees will be attracted to a plant containing a systemic pesticide and then carry the poisoned pollen back to their hives.

  2. Love how you sourced Home Depot's supplier and made personal contacts. While searching for a campaign to get nurseries and garden centers to pledge to sell only pesticide free pollinator-friendly plants, I found your blog post. Great work! I have started a list of questions to ask my local nurseries and garden centers to support a local campaign who intend to confront Big Box purveyors here i Massachusetts. I'd be happy to share my line of questioning with you, if you like. Thank you Samantha for all you are doing for pollinator health and well being.