I was thinking about plants and box stores and the free market system and, one of my favorite subjects, lethargy, (perhaps less pejoratively, inertia) and I came to a startling and disturbing conclusion. Home Depot, and its ilk, may be good for the introduction of new or underutilized taxa into the marketplace, and so our gardens. Wow!
Okay, here's my reasoning. While I have no knowledge whatsoever about the inner working of Box Store Management, I think I can infer a few things by looking at the plants on their shelves. They clearly aren't interested in giant markups on their woody plants and perennials; many sell for barely above what I remember as their wholesale cost. They seem to look for most of their margin in annuals. It is not an organization that is studded with horticultural knowledge, yet they do have good and interesting plants on an increasingly regular basis. Actually, they are a source for a few plants that I like to use in designs that more traditional garden centers and nurseries seem not to be able to either get in the first place, or keep in inventory. When these plants appear at the Box, we buy quantities because they won't be stocked for long.
My guess is that they have one or a few plant geeks in buyer positions. I don't mean plant geek in a bad way. Hey some/most? of my best friends are plant geeks; actually, I'm a plant geek. Anyway, if you combine this geek input with the tremendous clout that goes along with the volume they do, you get a situation where maybe (here my figures are pure whimsy), maybe they contract to have 10.000 pots of an obscure but wonderful plant grown that was essentially unavailable through traditional retail sources. They are definitely putting some good plants out there.
The horticultural ignorance of management is a good thing here. They don't care what they sell so long as its not poisonous or illegal... just that it moves and can produce the desired margin. This provides a flexibility that doesn't exist when the inevitably stodgy prejudices and preconceptions of an industry determine what to take a chance on. Not only are the Boxes more flexible, they aren't burdened by the need to maintain any semblance of a "complete" inventory. You can't go to a Box expecting anything other than that there will be good plants and they will be seasonally appropriate. The stores tend to have relatively large quantities of a relatively small number of taxa,but healthy and occasionally exciting.