Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Why Brent & Becky’s Keeps Getting My Business

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Dahlia by Brent & Becky's

The bankruptcy of Park Seed and Wayside has got me thinking.  Like every other gardener of my generation, my two great inspirations as a beginner were Michael Pollan's Second Nature, and Cassandra Danz's Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a
Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too
. Despite their differences in style, both Pollan and Danz were smart, funny, vivid writers…and not afraid to think critically about the dominant catalogs of that medieval pre-Internet moment, Wayside and White Flower Farm.  If you needed something interesting beyond the local nursery, well, these were the companies that purported to have you covered.

So, as an eager student of a new culture, I ordered stuff from the Big Glossies.  Certain things, like bare-root roses, were fine.  But other things–tiny, super-expensive perennials that instantly bit the dust–quickly made me rethink how I was going to spend my gardening dollar.

Today, I order seed for the vegetable garden profligately from catalogs.  Sometimes, I even take a flier on a cheap, bareroot ornamental shrub from the Fedco Trees catalog.  Otherwise, my ornamental catalog purchases tend to be limited to bulbs, which, unlike small perennials, ship well.

And for me, that means Brent & Becky's Bulbs.

In certain ways, I find Brent & Becky's Bulbs a relatively cold and clueless merchant.  I spend at least $500 a year with them.  Yet I have to beg them to send me a paper catalog.  They never do unless I call up and request it, even though I check off all the boxes saying, yes I would still like to see their offerings on paper. (I just got a big order from them.  They did include a fall catalog in the box.  Yeah!)

There's never any acknowledgment, either, that I am a loyal and free-spending customer, of the kind that would be most meaningful to me…maybe five free crocuses or a complimentary lily once in a while.  Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, on the other hand, where I'm a relatively new and less spendthrift customer, always throws in an extra package of something interesting.

And there is certainly no acknowledgment that we write about Brent & Becky's constantly here. Nary a comment on a blog post.  I don't particularly need the love.  I just find it interesting that they haven't noticed that we ARE talking about them.

Never mind.  I remain a loyal customer because Brent & Becky's does the most important thing right: They ship absolutely gorgeous bulbs and tubers that are head and shoulders above the offerings of anyone else. 

Last year, wanting more of a selection, I ordered dahlias from a dahlia specialist.  What a disappointment!  Each one was barely one stingy little tuber with one stingy little eye.  They never grew very well over the summer–and rotted in storage this winter.  Too small to survive!  

This year, I ordered lots of dahlias, short front-of-the border types, from Brent & Becky's.  Every dahlia they sent was a CLUMP of tubers, at least five per plant.  They were so big, I could have divided each one and still had a respectable-sized plant.

Brent & Becky's lily bulbs stand out just as much in a crowded field.  They are much bigger and fresher than anybody else's!  Some of my Brent & Becky's lilies, after a few years in my soil, are turning into trees.

Wayside and White Flower Farm belong to another moment, way before Dave's Garden Watchdog turned buyer beware into seller beware, possibly a more superficial moment in gardening, when a thick juicy well-photographed catalog could make gardeners forget their heads and spend way too much on a mirage. 

Brent & Becky's?  They belong to an era when you cannot survive if you are not the real deal.  They are the real deal, so they get my money every year.  If they ever go the way of Park Seed, I will be very sad.
 

Posted by on May 6, 2010 at 5:25 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar.
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27 responses to “Why Brent & Becky’s Keeps Getting My Business”

  1. susan harris says:

    All true! The quality of their product is backed up by the fact that their biggest customer group is the public gardens – savvy consumers who wouldn’t keep buying crappy bulbs.

    Also true is how out of touch they are with the online world. Brent – an old family friend – promised me in Raleigh last Sept that they’d start partnering with GardenRant somehow – to be explored – but I’ve never gotten a response to my emails or calls. Even after sending them the link to the Eco-Tulip giveaway that we did.

  2. Brent, Becky, their family and business are TREASURES. Like any business they probably have their challenges, but for landscape designers and gardeners in VA and beyond, they are our teachers. Brent taught hands on bulb container garden workshops at #Gentle Gardener and was infinitely kind, patient and full of info. The VSLD (Va Society of Landscape Designers) was treated to a summer tour and lecture there; I always learn ALOT from that org. I keep my dogeared handouts with notes from Brent’s talks while designing.

    Not only are their bulbs very good (and their supply chain leads to Holland like everyone else’s), but KNOWLEDGE is really what they have for you. Pay attention to those little heart symbols for their favorites in the catalog/web: another way they save me time and thus my clients $.

    Any bulb purveyor is in a commodity business but Brent & Becky have distinct competitive advantages: great customer service and the dissemination of knowledge.

    In a global business like bulbs, it may seem crazy, but I began about 10 years ago shifting my small design business over to buying ‘local’ (and paying MORE) from Brent & Becky. It’s been worth it.

    Every industry, including hort/’green’ industry is consolidating as a result of financial crisis. If you want to stop the commoditization of your community, shop local, shop independent, BUY QUALITY NOT QUANTITY, in every service or product your purchase in every category. I hope we also see some new forms of financing for small green businesses: #microenterprise lending- and not just for startups – is needed in the US of A, not just developing countries. Cooperatives are also needed. Community ownership and lending are needed.

  3. Tibs says:

    And I just sadly discarded my B&B Catalogue. After coming up with a lovely list of must have bulbs. It’s those dam’ college costs. Three more years and this gardener is going to run amuck among the catalogues. John Scheepers has pretty nice bulbs and good service, too.

  4. My go-to bulb catalog is, and has been since I was in high school, McClure and Zimmerman. I’ve ordered from B and B, and always been happy with them, but not quite as happy as I am with M and Z. Better selection, much more readable catalog, and excellent customer service, (complete with free bonus bulbs with EVERY order)

  5. Judybusy says:

    I might have to give B and B another try. I ordered from them once, and things didn’t come up. I have had great luck with Scheepers as well. I’m a smaller customer, limiting myself to about $100 every year. Even though I don’t have tuition like Tibs, it would be FAR too easy to spend with abandon!

  6. Lisa, Ontario says:

    If Brent and Becky’s are a smallish type company, sometimes it doesn’t pay off to become bigger, and more staff to handle all of the computer email/blogs/advertising. They are providing a great product, and they are reliable, really what more do you want? I know that the freebies are a treat, but will it get them any more business? I know that some acknowledgement of your loyalty would also be great, but again would it be worth their money to hire someone to handle all of that? Would it increase their sales? They may be as big as they want to be.

  7. Liisa says:

    I ordered cut flowers delivered to my husband’s Grandma from Brent & Becky’s, and you wouldn’t believe what we got for our $60. 101 long-stemmed, beautiful daffodils. She couldn’t find enough vases to put them all in, and she was delighted to have her whole house filled with such beauty. I’m not much of a bulb planter, so I haven’t tried their bulbs… yet. I’m so sold by their customer service and quality that I’m going to try a few species tulips this year with them. B&B gets two green thumbs up from me! :-)

  8. Susan Ferguson says:

    Brent & Becky’s replaced The Daffodil Mart, Brent’s 2nd or 3rd generation family business. Wonderful bulbs and quirky catalog list, no photos. I used to read every line and dream. I ordered a lot too. They were bought out by one of the big guys, with all kinds of promises about the quality and people- and did not deliver. Brent & Becky’s started anew sometime later, building on Brent’s long-standing connections in Holland. I’m so glad they did!!

  9. Michele Owens says:

    Susan, I loved the Daffodil Mart catalog, too. But that business was sold, ironically enough, to White Flower Farm, which never really used the terrific Daffodil Mart brand.

  10. K says:

    I think you’re overreaching with the “every gardener of your generation.” I imagine a lot of us were inspired just by what ohters around us created growing up or as we bought our first houses or moved to apartments and wanted them to look nice.

  11. Gene says:

    A bit off topic, but still start with B’s are bamboogarden.com and Bluestone – two companies i’ve mail-ordered from and was highly impressed by the careful packaging and success rate. You have to call bamboogarden.com to place your order, which is exactly what they want! I’m in Michigan zone 5-6, they are located outside Portland, OR. They will gladly direct you to successful specimens. My fargesia rufa will easily be 4-5 feet tall this year and stayed evergreen for the first time…from very humble beginnings 2 years ago.

    Not a fan of bulbs, but if i change my fancy, i’ll be sure to give B&B a try.

  12. This is a perfect example of how customer service is the new battle ground. Companies really need to provide more than service, they need to provide attention. Because of blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube, cinchcast, friendfeed (i could go on) LITTLE THINGS ARE BIG THINGS.
    This read like an e-smackdown! Lackadazical Cust. Service is unacceptable now. @kat_hassinger on twitter.

  13. Daryl says:

    I love Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. I normally get 2 catalogs/year, even when I don’t request them. I keep at them in my car so that I can show Becky’s gorgeous photos to clients so that they know what things will look like, and so that I’ll have B and B’s phone number handy to give to them.

    I’ve always gotten an answer (usually from Becky) when I’ve emailed them about a plant. I’ve only once had a problem with a shipment (and it wasn’t their fault), and the customer service person was very courteous, informed, and solved the problem efficiently.

    I used to work customer service for a Fortune 500 bulb company, and saw what went out of the door. Brent and Becky’s bulbs were always superior, even when we had a good product.

    Besides, I like buying from a small, American, family-owned company. More power to them, and long may they thrive.

  14. Eliza says:

    <3 & <3 for Brent & Becky's!

    I live near Park Seed and watched their decline in person through my yearly visits to their Greenwood storefront. My dad was a roommate with one of the Park's in college, too. It's sad to see a family business spread into something too big and unfocused to succeed.

    I hope Brent & Becky's doesn't go the way of Park Seed too. Both with their finances and with their character. I'll take superior products over fluff and sparkle any ol' day.

  15. carpetbag_garden says:

    I have to say that I am not a fan of Brent and Becky’s. Their catalog and website do nothing for me. I actually find their website terribly unattractive and confusing.

    On the other hand, I love Old House Gardens. I love all their plants and I know from experience that what you see in the catalog is what you get. I find the website easy to use and the catalog attractive. I also know that you get excellent customer service. And you always get an acknowledgment on your order from Scott or one of his crew (and sometimes a free bulb or two).

    OHG is consistently in the top 30 companies on Garden Watchdog, while B&B’s is no longer in that ranking.

  16. Astra says:

    I like B&B. I typically order from them and from Old House Gardens for bulbs. (Well, and Odyssey Bulbs for rare ones, and…)

    I think the key to ordering perennials is finding a good company that shares your climate conditions. I order huge amounts from High Country Gardens and their plants do great here–it’s just like home for them. I’ve had more trouble with perennials from points back east because I can’t always tell if they are going to work here and even if they will, I have to be much more careful about hardening them off.

  17. Botany Buddy says:

    I am just not a bulb guy, but a huge Baker Creek fan. No one person has gotten more of my garden money in the last decade the Jerre Baker. I am as religious about them and they are about their ways. I think BC would be a great topic for GR to do a story on. Also if you haven’t found them, their forums are about as good a garden discussion as you will find on the Internets. Before I got wrapped up in my writing I spent all my time there. Just stay off the politics thread and you’ll be fine. They bring in people from all types and places and have real discussions, not just self interested pontification. I dream of the day I can host a forum like “Greenzone” (the moderator).

  18. Sorry to hear about Parks. When I was little, that was one of the few places to get good quality plants and seeds.

  19. Jenny says:

    I, too, find Brent and Becky’s website not user friendly and confusing. :(

    One of my favs is Hallson’s. I’ve never had a plant fail from them, and they’re nice size, price and quality. And, they always send a freebee. Not any ol’ freebee, but a COOL one!

  20. Gardenology says:

    I agree that if you request a catalog then they should send it, but otherwise, it seems like they’re focusing on great quality at good prices, which is great. Mailing out extra catalogs (I couldn’t get Parks to stop sending me catalogs) and freebie seeds/plants you may not want just serves to drive up prices.

  21. Brent and Becky Bulbs are wonderful – one thing you can say about this family business is that they know their plants and they continue to share their passion for gardening – they really do care and I think that shows in their customer service. PS check out their entertaining weekly podcasts.

  22. gardengeri says:

    Did you know, B&B contribute end-of-year remaindered bulbs to non-profit organizations? Quality is terrific.

  23. PlantingOaks says:

    I too, urge you to give perennials another shot now that we’ve entered the new era of mail-order. Bluestone in particular knows how to pack those things!

  24. Thought I should throw in a mention of High Country Gardens. I ordered some very reasonably priced Iris pallida and cold-hardy yucca, and were delighted by what good shape they were in (and it’s a long trip from Colorado to Massachusetts).

    HCG also has a great catalog and Website, especially for xeric enthusiasts.

    And I second the comment about Old House Gardens. I ordered a handful of lilies from them, and they included a personalized thank you note, and even better, all the lilies came up!

  25. Laura W says:

    Do not hesitate to place your order after checking out the Brent & Becky’s website when you’re done reading this post. B&B accepts orders for fall planting as early as…NOW! Placed an order this week to ensure I get my picks before they sell out, which is not uncommon.

  26. Kaveh Maguire says:

    I miss Cassandra Danz. :(

    Brent & Becky are friends of friends and they always speak very highly of them. Perhaps they are just too busy growing quality plants to spend time reading blogs and twittering. A lot of gardeners I know aren’t big fans of the internet.

  27. Janet says:

    The best dahlia tubers I’ve ever gotten were from Dutch Gardens. I haven’t ordered from them recently, as we have a superb dahlia farm in Oregon, Swan Island Dahlias, which also does mail order. I like Scheepers for unusual spring bulbs–good quality.

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