Catherine StewartBunnings’ blunders and bloopers

hammer over plantBunnings, the Australian juggernaut hardware and greenlife ‘box store’ that has been partly responsible for the demise of a quality independent nursery near you, offers these appalling clangers in its latest spring media release for creating a “zero fuss garden“.

This is from the October 2015 Bunnings Media Release, written by PR people but quoting several of Bunnings’ national product managers. It doesn’t go direct to consumers but is produced as a source of free gardening information for general publications, which means slabs of it will be reproduced in papers around the country, including my own local rag.

“Installing a weed mat will save feet from pesky prickles and say goodbye to most weeding! Laying down a weed mat is an easy D.I.Y. project that will put your garden in good stead for the summer season and help your plants flourish and prevent those annoying weeds.”
This is completely nonsensical. Are you supposed to put down the weedmat over your lawn and walk on it? And weedmat is going to ‘help your plants flourish‘? How? Is it impregnated with fertilisers, rather than just made out of non-recyclable plastics? Good gardeners would never use weedmat except where there are no plants involved. Weedmat can have its uses, such as under a paved or gravel path but even there it doesn’t stop bulbous weeds like onion weed. Weedmat in a garden can quickly clog, causing the soil underneath to become either bone dry, or wet and anaerobic.

Cartoon mosquito

“Basil and lemon scented herbs such as lemon balm will repel flies and mosquitos.”
This is a garden myth that’s been busted many times over. Some believe that burning citronella oil repels mosquitos, although there’s little scientific evidence to support this so it cannot be sold in the EU as an insect repellent. Out of this myth seems to have sprung the even sillier myth that anything lemon-scented will do the same job. For a start, citronella oil comes from lemon grass, not lemon balm and second, the tiny amount of odour produced by an aromatic plant nearby is definitely not going to keep mosquitos from biting you. Even crushing up all the leaves and rubbing them on your skin wouldn’t deter mozzies for more than a minute. You may not like it but DEET is currently the only proven insect repellent. Or stop them breeding by filling your plant saucers with sand and getting rid of other places of still water.

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“To really create a garden you can be proud of, invest in citrus fruit trees and your favourite fruit and vegetable plants such as a tomatoes, zucchini and sweet corn. These plants are all low maintenance…”
Low maintenance? Seriously? I readily admit to being a non-vegie and fruit grower, and one of the reasons is that I know from bitter experience how difficult and high maintenance these plants are. You only have to look at the huge range of fertilisers and pesticides produced specifically for citrus to know that this can’t possibly be true and, having checked out more on these other plants, I see that corn is a very fussy about drainage and spacing, tomatoes need staking and daily watering, and zucchini can be very stubborn when it comes to setting viable fruit as they have separate male and female flowers.
If newbie gardeners are incorrectly told that growing edibles such as these is easy, then their very likely failures will turn them off gardening for life.

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“Lemon balm and other flowering herbs will also attract bees that will assist in the pollination of tomatoes.”
Tomatoes are not pollinated by bees. Tomatoes mostly self pollinate, often before the flower is even open or, after opening, by wind shaking the flowers about. You might see the odd bee buzzing about your tomato plant but having more of them will make no difference at all to pollination.

These gaffes are bad enough but what REALLY MAKES ME ANGRY are the opening lines of this media release, with their blatant anti-gardening sentiments:
“Four easy ways to create a zero fuss garden
Get the most out of your backyard this summer by creating a low maintenance garden that will ensure your time is spent enjoying your backyard, instead of maintaining it.”
As long as ignorant, non-gardening PR writers keep pushing the notion that gardening is a maintenance chore to be avoided, instead of a wonderful, therapeutic past-time and hobby that’s good exercise and also greatly enriched by acquiring some of the vast body of knowledge that helps us become good gardeners, then there is no hope for the future of gardening.

Shame on you Bunnings. A job badly done. If you want to publish in the horticulture market, lift your game and use qualified and knowledgeable horticulturists.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

38 thoughts on “Bunnings’ blunders and bloopers

  1. Go Catherine! Love your rant and completely agree, and where do they get off on trying to dissuade the general public from enjoying and engaging with a real garden that grows, has weeds and needs some (generally enjoyable) upkeep. There is no such thing as a maintenance free garden. But there is lots of therapeutic, stress reducing, quiet time to be spent in the garden – a suitable balance for most of us with hectic, busy lives.

  2. You tell ’em love. If they want to deter customers from gardening, why don’t they just sell canvases with painted flowers and shrubs on them to stick up along the fence line? No offensive toiling in the garden guaranteed!

    • Yes, I couldn’t even get a lime tree to grow well and ended up taking it out, after countless hours spent battling scale, aphids, leaf hoppers and stink bugs. It was like I’d erected an ‘ALL YOU CAN EAT HERE’ sign over that part of the garden. Way too hard!

    • I think most retail nurseries, whether independent or part of a retail group, are still selling pest control products containing imidacloprid (and there are lots beside Confidor) as it’s still a registered and legal-to-use chemical. That will continue unless the APVMA decides to withdraw its approvals as has happened in the EU and many USA states.

      • Yes. Sorry, I have to rant.

        The nursery where I am a part-time employee has it on the shelves, but it sells (ahem) slowly, because I and other staff always point out to customers that it has been banned in the EU, has been strongly implicated in bee colony collapse in the US, and has killed birds in Holland. Upon hearing this, 99% of customers are very happy to take an alternative which is invariably more targeted. The only thing I haven’t been able to find an alternative for is psyllids in lillypillies. In that case, I mention psyllid-resistant cultivars, and also recommend that they clip the hedge so that it does not flower while using the product (personally, I’d prefer a wrinkly spotty hedge to one that looks great but kills bees, but it’s my customer’s garden, not mine). Finally, sometimes we have frail customers, or those for whom applying a contact insecticide to a large number of plants or large shrubs is physically impossible.

        Conversely, my employer also stocks things that aren’t big sellers, but are really worthwhile sustainable products like worm castings, eco-hydrate, zeolite, diatomaceous earth, rock dust and vegie nets.

        This isn’t directly relevant but IMO perhaps more insidious is Bunning’s market control. Many gardeners are probably unaware that some products available in Bunnings are not available to other nurseries. I don’t understand how this is not anti-competitive behaviour, and why Bunnings is not scrutinised by the competition watchdog.

        I very occasionally shop in Bunnings, but it’s generally because the local nursery nearby has been forced to close!

        At the nursery where I work, we can’t compete on price with Bunnings, even though we are part of a retail group (it has been a family business for decades). It’s simply impossible when they can buy the same product at a fraction of the cost. But our nursery is thriving, because we provide plants that actually grow well in our area, and my boss goes to wholesalers and hand-selects the best plants, as well as ordering from a wide range of suppliers.

        We have genuinely knowledgeable staff and we provide free information sheets specifically for local suburbs when people buy plants fussy in our area, like citrus, or when customers are starting their first vegie garden. We want customers to understand WHY they should use certain products in particular situations and we want them to succeed – education is part of our service. And sometimes we fix the mistakes that Bunnings has made with its nursery customers (although no amount of fixing can save a terminal frangipani in a cold, frosty Mylor garden, or a lemon planted in the middle of winter!).

        So appropriate plants coupled with knowledgeable advice means that customers of local nurseries are much more likely to have success with their purchases.

        Having said that, when working in a nursery you are constantly reminded about just how much you don’t know. Scarcely a week goes by that I’m asked a question I can’t answer (today: a Viburnum odoratissimum hedge with what looked to be a viral disease). But if I don’t know the answer to a plant question, I say so, and that I’ll look it up or make phone calls and hopefully have an answer for them when they return or ring.

        And, although they may take some time to arrive, we order in unusual plants (often just one, for one regular customer!), and often from interstate.

        We know a significant proportion of our customers by name, and they know ours, even when we wear shirts *without* nametags.

        Is the nursery where I work special? No, because many independent nurseries are like this, and YES, because we are NOT Bunnings!

        End of Rant.

        • Hi Helen – I’ve had a Bunnings employee send me this response:
          I am pleased and proud work as a horticulturist and it just happens that I prefer to work for Bunnings retail even though I have also had 15 years experience working for a great private retail nursery and two of the best wholesale nurseries in Sydney.
          I would like to speak out in favour of our Nursery team members.
          Bunnings has been successful in bringing NEW customers to the gardening world, is very active in donating and building school and community gardens and bringing good profits to the wholesale nurseries who supply us.
          Even more important is the mentoring we do for non qualified team members, time permitting of course, in advice we give to them and to our customers for sustainable plant and chemical choices as opposed to the quick fixes so often sought!
          However I am disappointed that our senior management promotes unsound articles on so-called sustainable practices on websites and a magazine we sell in our stores as well as the inappropriate distribution of plant material to sensitive climate zones.

          • Yes, of course there are skilled employees working and mentoring in Bunnings nurseries, just as there are unskilled ones working in local nurseries but, in my experience, both categories are significant minorities. And I’m afraid I’ve just seen too many examples of inappropriate plants stocked in local Bunnings stores for it to be an exception. My local nursery also stocks a very small number of tricky plants because we are asked often for them, but we explain that they are tricky in our area, and provide advice on how best to grow them if the customer still wants the plant. Does this happen in Bunnings? I think not.

            However, I certainly agree that the Bunnings staff I’ve encountered are without exception friendly and as helpful as their knowledge allows, and I also acknowledge that nursery staff do not have control over the stock list as they should. If knowledgeable Bunnings staff were permitted to stock the shelves with climate-appropriate plants, this would greatly improve the situation: new gardeners will never become old gardeners if the inappropriate plants they buy die or fail to thrive through no fault of their own.

        • Hello Catherine,

          Speaking of nurseries. When we moved into this suburban area 30 years ago, there was a beautiful nursery nearby. It didn’t last long after that and is now a high rise apartment block, and more blocks going up all around there. Very sad.

          Bunnings is sadly the only nursery around here and it is a very long walk to it, should we need anything. Delivery was $60+. Unfortunately we have to rely on public transport to get anywhere, so we cannot buy too many plants at once.

          We also had a Target “nursery” here then which had a good variety of plants etc. It too has gone and Bunnings gets all the business.

          • That is sad, Katherine. The closing of every local nursery is to the detriment of all plant lovers – all that knowledge, expertise and helpful service lost. Unless Bunnings chooses to employ trained horticulturists in its stores and stop its silly centralised buying practices then it will only get worse, and the only quality plants to be had will be in the occasional plant fair.

  3. Well and humorously argued Catherine!! Totally agree. Hope you sent a copy to Bunnings.
    I am greatly saddened by the loss of independent, local nurseries. Not too many of them in Sydney now.

  4. What really annoys me about the “big box” stores is that they sell plants that are not suitable for this climate (Canberra). I frequently see people walking out with inappropriate plants; no wonder people give up on gardening.

    • From my research, the ‘greenlife’ buyers at Bunnings in general don’t have any horticulture qualifications but have been promoted through the ranks for other reasons. It shows that Bunnings still doesn’t understand that plants cannot be common to all locations, unlike hardware. In fact from what I hear from Bunnings employees, there is no value put on having hort quals to work in the nursery section. Thank goodness there are some that do but they are hampered by being sent inappropriate stock to sell and having to deal with non-qualified co-workers.

  5. Hi Catherine, I agree with many points in your article. However tomato plants are pollinated by bees through sonification. Wind may sometimes mimic this process but the bee is definitely the primary pollinator. It is a myth that tomatoes are cable of self pollination without some form of sonification. In Tasmania bees including bumbles are all over my tomato plants despite the large range of herbaceous perennials on offer.

    • Thanks Ace, but there is ample scientific evidence for both self and wind pollination of tomatoes. Yes, bumblebees are widely used for buzz pollination in greenhouse tomato growing around the world as there is no wind inside the glasshouse but they are not necessary for tomatoes grown in the garden, even if they like to visit them. Honey bees don’t buzz pollinate and, although feral bumblebees are common in Tasmania, they are fortunately not yet established in mainland Australia.
      I refer you to this extract from HortScience 34(5):846-847, 1999.
      “The tomato is >99% naturally self-pollinated (Groenewegen et al., 1994). The flower of most commercial cultivars has a short style that places the stigma well within the anther tube, assuring self-pollination and virtually eliminating the opportunity for outcrossing (Rick, 1978). Pollen is shed within the individual flowers during anthesis when there is a strong enough vibrating force, such as wind, to shake the plant and flower (Snyder, 1997). Insect pollination of field tomatoes is very rare and has no significant effect on fruit set and yield (Quiros and Marcias, 1978). Most of the investigations on pollinating tomato flowers by electric vibrators have been conducted in greenhouses in Europe (Kerr and Kribs, 1955). Results have indicated that this treatment was necessary to obtain good fruit set and size in the absence of wind (Verkerk, 1957).”

  6. Hi Catherine,
    the article you cite uses only three cultivars of tomato as evidence. This is an incredibly small sample as there are in excess of 20 thousand cultivars. The article also over simplifies the issue of tomato reproduction. The wild tomato plant is completely pollinated by bees and modern cultivars vary in their ability to self pollinate without bees or wind mimicking this sonication. They are basically in a transitional stage from a plant that was solely reliant on a particular bee native to the tomatoes home range- to a plant that is moving towards becoming self fertile. The bumble bee is a good pollinator of tomatoes, even though it doesn’t use sonication it mimics this process by actually holding onto the flower and shaking it resulting in similar vibration.

  7. My distaste for the ubiquitous Bunnings is that they have obviously wiped out much of the local small nurseries in every town they invade, they fund most gardening programmes it seems and so EVERYONE now shops at Bunnings.

    The plants are expensive, unsuited to the local areas however my MAJOR beef is that Bunnings perpetuates, along with these garden shows, the instant ‘gravel and spikes’ harsh looking gardens in our predominately harsh climate! Where are the garden rooms, the mature shade giving trees, the evolution of your garden as you happily toil in its peace?

  8. I’ve always believed that true gardeners seek each other out and happily exchange cuttings, thus saving mega bucks, and share information and experience with gardening friends. Who needs Bunnings!

  9. Catherine, I’m relieved to hear you say how difficult and high maintenance it is to grow vegetable and fruit trees. I’m so sick of hearing the “experts” on television shows go on about how easy it is to grow your own vegetables. After all the money and time I’ve put into trying to maintain a few basic veges and fruit trees over the past couple of years, I’m giving up. If it’s not the pests and diseases, storm damage or lack of or too much water or bandicoots or rats eating my yet to be harvested food. Time to accept defeat, save money and admire the growing success of my mixed native and exotic plants and their sweet blooms.

  10. Hello Catherine,

    I had the increasingly rare pleasure of going to the most brilliant independent garden centre yesterday I’ve been to for a very long time – In desperation for a lovely client, I was hunting down something that the wholesale nurseries couldn’t supply until after Christmas. So I rang the retail nurseries in ever widening circles.

    Bonnyrigg Garden Centre is one of those rare gems – from phone to yard there is fantastic knowledge, great service, a wide selection of what I required at reasonable prices. And this was before I got into the car and drove for an hour. It was a stinking hot day and it was a very pleasure to wander around the extensive site. Surprisingly on two occasions I heard staff re-directing clients to a more suitable plant for the conditions they described, and both times it was done carefully and respectfully and their recommendations were not only more appropriate but resulted in a significantly lower sale. A triple win for the customer; they were set for success not failure, they learnt something, and found a supportive environment for their forays into their brand new gardening adventures.

    It’s not often we find something that is so good you want to write about it – big Corporates and Independents should all go and take a look and learn something about passion, knowledge, hard work, service and ambience. It’s the garden centre I haven’t experienced for a very long time and it’s nice to know that over the rainbow in Bonnyrigg, it still exists. And the cafe is great as well. And even there clients are ‘educated’ nicely – ‘Coffee!’ = $5, “Coffee Please” = $4, and there is a third option, check it out for yourselves.

    Congratulations on your Allan Seale Award – very well deserved!

    Warm regards
    Frayne

  11. Bunnings dont cater for gardeners. Gardening has long (and is, to some extent) as the domain of grey-haired, woolly-jumpered , sensible-shoe wearing experts and not something for the mainstream (think of some of the TV hosts and column writers from the 60s to the 80s). Bunnings make, or attempt to make, gardening easy and accessible for all which is not based on a noble mission but rather an objective to sell as much product as possible and widen the market. Gardening isn’t easy nor low maintenance (even cacti & succulent gardens need frequent deadheading and attention) but this is the myth being pushed in order to achieve that goal.

    As for this obsession with growing your own edibles that the gardening shows constantly push on us..edibles on the window sill, edibles on the nature strip, edibles in the local park..I long for the day when the trend is over. As mentioned, fruit and vegetables are painful to grow, are prone to attack from every living organism and take up far too much space in proportion to the little yield they provide. Backyards are smaller than ever and space is at a premium; why fill it up with a few hole-ridden lettuce bushes and sprawling tomato bushes?

    • Gardening has yet to reinvent itself as a sexy and fashionable thing to do. Unlike cooking which has managed to change itself from a chore you had to do every night into an inventive, creative and high-art way to spend an entire weekend, with the entire result either self-indulgently consumed or wastefully thrown away. The constant pushing of low maintenance gardens as something to prefer and something good to achieve feeds into the notion that gardening is a worse way to spend time than housework and to be avoided at all costs. Unless of course you’re growing the food you can then cook.

      • I see your point, but have to add that, as someone who loves growing food in an attractive, landscaped but definitely high-maintenance vegie garden, there is a place for every passion in the broad church of gardening. Ironically, one of the reasons I love growing vegetables is that a vegie garden is never finished – there is always next season’s plants to put in! But of course, only another gardener will understand the joy of a garden that is never completed!

    • One of the really good byproducts of the fad for growing your own food is understanding food, particularly for people on a low wage. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat badly and conversely you don’t have to spend a lot to eat nutritiously and well. Personally, I think a lot of people (well, me anyway) learn by doing. If you only know a courgette from the supermarket, you don’t know a courgette!

      When I picked and quickly cooked a courgette fresh from my garden I couldn’t believe how good it tasted – all those food writers banging on about the ‘nutty taste’ of courgettes, finally I got it! The difference in taste between that and ones from the supermarket was unreal.

      We live on a 750 square metre town section. We don’t grow anywhere near enough food to feed ourselves – as my husband says the whole backyard would have to be in spuds to do that – but there are plenty of easy-ish crops to grow: Beans, broccolini, onions, garlic, pumpkins (note to self: if they grow across the lawn you can’t mow the lawn!), strawberries … He’s got into seed saving (v. easy) and the strawberries are renewed easily. Yes, and tomatoes, lots of tomatoes.

      Understanding where your food comes from is, I believe, a big step towards eating healthily and well. And since we’re not doing a ‘food forest’, the veges are surrounded by flower gardens (good for pollination and fun) – rhubarb and roses, peaches and penstemons.

  12. I also find a lot of food easy to grow. We are on the south coast of WA, over 1000mm annual rain, good soil but quite dry summers.

    We are always over-flowing with apples from March to July (very easy, drought tolerant trees) have a short break until blueberries arrive in September (these are our highest maintenance plants of all but so worth it). These are followed by youngberries, nectarines, peaches, plums, apricots, more plums, figs, nashi pears and then beurre bosc pears by which time the apples are back in season!

    Veges are more time consuming but we stick to the easy things. Garlic and broad beans grow through the winter with nothing but a little weeding required In summer we stick to tomatoes, corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes (the latter two being almost no maintenance).

    Obviously local knowledge is all important. Choose the right crops and the right varieties and you half way home. I too have purchased the wrong plants at the wrong time of the year from Bunnings. This is what happens when big business tries the one size fits all approach!

    • How lucky you are with that wonderful fruit! Here in Sydney it would be riddled with fruit fly. And yes, I have sensibly avoided buying the gentians that my local Sydney Bunnings has for sale but I suspect many others will take them home hoping for those rich blue flowers…in our subtropical climate. Totally ridiculous stock choices that are guaranteed to turn someone off gardening when they fail.

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