First, most of the plants are in the Ericaceae, the heather family, and will only be healthy in acid soil. These include several Rhododendrons and azaleas, and a couple cultivars of Pieris (as seen in this picture), also known as Andromeda. However, most everyone’s soil around here rests on limestone bedrock, and is mixed with limestone pebbles. As such, it is almost certain to be alkaline, not acid, except in raised beds built up with peat moss, in places with deep humus-rich forest soil, or where people have used acidifying chemicals, such as sulfur or Holly-tone fertilizer.
This is not a mere hypothetical problem. Compared to those in the suburbs of Boston, Rhododendrons and their acid-loving cousins almost always look sickly in this region, and even some that are apparently healthy often have the subtle distress signs of chlorosis, such as leaves yellowing, with green veins (second picture, taken in North Adams).
Another plant with a large display at the Big Y (Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’) is shown on its label with bright blue flowers, but it will probably be pink (and perhaps chlorotic) in most people’s gardens, again because the soil is not acid. The fine print on the Hydrangea label does state this color effect, but for the rest of the acid-loving plants, only some of the labels inform us that the plant needs acid soil, and some don’t.
Besides, the Big Y is not a specialty plant nursery. It is an impulse purchase point for people who are generally not very garden-knowledgeable. It is not reasonable to expect this broader public to know whether their soil has a high (alkaline) pH. Even if everyone did know this, it still makes no sense to offer a limited display of plants, the majority of which are unsuitable for the local conditions.
The other big problem is some of the plants are of questionable hardiness for our Zone 5 climate. To go back to ‘Endless Summer’ – this is a Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar. Most H. macrophyllas are rated hardy only to Zone 6. While there is some controversy on the matter, this cultivar is probably bud hardy in protected (nonwindy) areas in warmer parts of zone 5. But there aren’t a lot of places around here which don’t get much wind. (The cold wind is the other reason Rhododendron and Pieris often suffer hereabouts.)
The plant will survive our winters, but it will likely have significant die-back – including most of its overwintering flower buds – in many if not most winters. Yet this shrub’s label simply says that it’s hardy in Zone 4. It also claims that the plant will bloom throughout the summer, first on its old wood (i.e., on overwintered flower buds), and then on new wood. This reblooming feature means it should in fact bloom here in late summer on its new wood, but again, the earlier blooming on old wood is highly questionable in a zone 5 garden. (Because of dieback, it also probably won’t attain its expected size of 4 to 6 feet.)
Finally, one of the plants was a cute “Alberta Spruce.” Generally this variety of the white spruce species (Picea glauca var. albertiana) is sold in its ‘dwarf’ form. People are often surprised that these dwarves eventually grow to 15 feet tall. But in this case, the plant isn’t a dwarf at all. It is expected to grow up to 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Fortunately, this fact is on the plant’s label, but I question whether it makes sense to include such a tree, because most people are not out making impulse purchases of 60-foot forest trees, and at least some people who buy this plant probably aren’t going to notice that that’s what they’ve got, especially given its name and similar appearance to the popular dwarf spruces. Of course, it is a lot quicker and cheaper to grow a non-dwarf spruce to the 2-gallon size than it would be to use a real dwarf cultivar.
I don’t expect the Big Y to have dedicated shrub buyers, but you’d think they could find somebody in the headquarters who has done some gardening and has given some thought to what grows in the area. It’s not like they’re down in