Big box garden centers adapt to the drought in California

I have a conflicted relationship with the big box home improvement chains (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Orchard Supply Hardware, etc.). On the one hand, I appreciate the one-stop shopping and huge range of products they offer, on the other hand I lament how they have all but eliminated the small, independent hardware stores that used to be a fixture in every town across America.

I do shop at the Lowe’s and Home Depots in the Sacramento area when our local Ace Hardware store doesn’t have what I need. However, it’s often an uneasy experience because I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing.

It’s even worse when it comes to their garden centers. I know I shouldn’t even be looking, but of course I do. And occasionally I even buy something. There, I’ve said it.

The big box home improvement chains are rarely on the cutting edge of trends. They lag behind at first, then play catch-up. That has been true for their response to the drought here in California. Three years ago, the succulent selection at the Northern California big box garden centers was very limited; usually one rack of 2- and 3-inch plants from Altman. Over time, the inventory has expanded to include many more offerings in #1 cans and larger. After all, it’s very difficult to re-do a yard with 2 and 3 inch pots!

Not having been to Lowe’s in a while, I was quite surprised to see this large banner outside the garden center at their West Sacramento store:


Right behind it was a varied display of succulents:


Even more succulents right inside the store:


And then almost an entire aisle further down:




So many Pleiospilos nelii to kill :-)


Agave titanota, labeled “Rancho Tambor agave”


The one on the right is what’s often called Agave ‘Felipe Otero’ or ‘FO-76’. It may or may not be related to Agave titanota; the experts are still locked in battle over this. These are not agaves you typically see in a place like Lowe’s.


Labeled Ferocactus glaucescens, which it most definitely is NOT


Pachypodium hybrid




I did want to know what this is but all it had was the frustrating label “Assorted succulents”. ID’ed as Cotyledon orbiculata 'Elk Horns' by Jane Strong.


Cotyledon ‘White Sprite’ (with Hesperaloe parviflora in the background)

This is the largest selection of succulents I’ve ever seen at a big box garden center in Northern California. There wasn’t anything super rare, but what they had was well grown and (shocker!) well maintained. It seems that the people working in the garden center have had a crash course in how to take care of succulents. Or maybe the growers have altered their soil mix to make it more difficult to rot the plants by overwatering (the biggest problem in a place like Lowe’s).

I won’t deny it, I was impressed. Admittedly, my expectations for Lowe’s, Home Depot etc. are never high, but I need to give credit where credit is due. There are quite a few independent nurseries in our area that are still stuck in the olden days as far as plant selection goes (Succulents? What’s that? Oh, cactus! No, our customers wouldn’t buy that!). They could and should take a page out Lowe’s playbook.

So, what did I buy? Four plants: two Cotyledon ‘White Sprite’ (in the front of my shopping cart in the photo below), a false ocotillo (Alluaudia procera), and a Cuphea hybrid without a label (the other plants were labeled, but I grabbed one without).



Alluaudia procera, a stem succulent from Madagascar that resembles the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) but is not related to it at all

My heart and wallet will forever belong to the small independent nurseries that specialize in the plants I love, be it succulents, southern hemisphere shrubs, bamboo or rare and unusual things. 90% of the plants in our garden came from those kinds of nurseries.

But regular homeowners or folks with just a passing interest in gardening don’t necessarily shop at specialist nurseries. With the expanded selection of xeric plants now available at the big box garden centers, they, too, have access to plants that are much better equipped to handle the ongoing drought in the Golden State.


  1. Hello, Gerhard, your unnamed succulent is Cotyledon orbiculata 'Elk Horns'. I bought mine from Home Depot in March. Altman suppllies both Home Depot and Lowe's, I think. It blooms nicely, but the color and leaf shape are what endear it to me.

    I think the choices of succulents and drought-hardy plants may be up to the local buyer. The local HD in Alhambra has always had a table of "landscape" succulents outside and inside at least one table devoted to succulents in various size pots and another table or two with drought-hardy (branded Smart Planet by Altman) plants in large sized pots so they don't dry out too quickly.

    1. Thank you for the ID, Jane. Now I have to go back and buy it :-)

      I think the Lowe's and Home Depots in Southern California (not to mention Arizona) have always had a much better selection of succulents. I'm glad to see the Northern California stores are starting to catch up a little. A lot of what grows in Southern California grows here in the Central Valley as well. And people would buy landscape succulents if stores carried them!

  2. Big boxes may take awhile but I suppose with them chasing after people's custom they have to adapt...eventually. Nice that they finally did :)

  3. The cuphea looks like this season's ubiquitous Proven Winners hybrid, 'Vermillionaire.'

    1. You're right! It looks exactly like 'Vermillionaire'. I wonder why many sites call it an annual. As far as I know, cupheas are perennials.

    2. Generalizing from frostier, more eastern climes, I should imagine. I've certainly underwatered mine to death, but never lost it to 60F winters, thankfully. I think you'll like this one: foliage not quite as downy-soft and interesting as some named varieties and hybrids I've tried ('Minnie Mouse,' 'Strybing Sunset,' 'Ballistic,' 'Copper Cricket') but it's pleasantly and reliably forest-green and just a shade less shiny than C. ignea varieties. Nice little dwarf.

  4. I spend more money than I should at Independent garden centers. Which is why I have no qualms about browsing the plants at HD and Lowes (In fact, I usually stop into Lowes in Cotati on my way back from Lone Pine Gardens/Peacock Hort. to get topdressing for my new purchases). The other day I spotted a grouping of Leucadendron 'Ebony' in 5 gals at Lowes. I could hardly believe my eyes.

    1. 'Ebony'? That's insane! Which Lowe's was that? I'll get a few!

    2. The Lowes in Cotati. They were there one day, but when I went back, they were gone. However, if you are in the area, the Friedmans in petaluma often has 'Ebony' as well as many other varieties, all very reasonably priced. Not as cheap as the ones at Lowes, though. But they have the best selection of Monterey Bay Nursery plants in the area.

    3. Thanks, Max. Good to know about Friedmans. I've driven by it but I've never stopped there.

  5. I usually only go to the big box stores when I'm trailing my husband in his search to repair something or another. Because the something-or-another aisles are always exceedingly boring, I inevitably head out to the garden area. I've noticed a change in the selection down this way too and admit to occasional purchases. For awhile, the local Lowes was the only place I ever saw Sunset's plant selections. Things are changing but I still prefer the independent garden centers for the range of plant selections.

    1. I've been wondering why the Sunset selections aren't more widely available. I think people would buy them based on the name alone, but I rarely seen them in the Sacramento area.

  6. I would have grabbed the 'Rancho Tambor'. That is the type locality for titanota, isn't it? Oh dear, I'm shopping in someone's blog post...

    Here generally the cuphea look dreadful in the winter, and may or may not bounce back come spring.

    The wholesalers who are surviving have expanded to selling to the big-boxes. Survival.

    1. Yes, I should have gotten the one of the left. It does look like the real deal. The one on the right looks like the blue version of FO-76; I have that one already.

  7. My experience echoes yours. The big boxes have always had a good selection of small succulents, but now they're bringing in big landscape sizes and some beautiful large specimens that are at shockingly good prices. The remaining local independents still seem afraid to bring in anything too "spiny" in bigger sizes other than agaves and yuccas.

    1. Up here in the Sacramento area there's still a lot of resistance vs. spiky plants. I think nurseries find them to be a hard sell. But it's all about customer education and a general change in sensibility. We'll get there eventually, especially if the water situation doesn't change.

  8. No surprise, I'm with you on the small independent nurseries. Our gardens would be so boring / standard without them.

    The titonata is lovely, I'm with Hoover Boo, that would have come straight home with me. Mind you I am a sucker for them.

    1. I should have gotten the A. titanota on the left. May go back for it tomorrow.

  9. Independent nurseries are our Mecca but you're right. The big boxes are where you go to buy plants for the great majority of people, and when they can get the right plants...and healthy ones at that, they might just have so much success that they turn into serious gardeners.

    You made some great purchases. I bought Andrew an Alluaudia procera on a visit I made to Phoenix back when we were just dating. It's still alive! It loses its leaves every winter when it comes indoors but they quickly return in the spring.

    That name game between Agave ‘Felipe Otero’ and Agave titanota is a long standing source of confusing for me. Thanks for helping to clear it up.

    1. What a great story about the Alluaudia procera you bought for Andrew so many years ago. Do you bring it inside for the winter?

      Here's a very short but good blurb about A. titanota vs. 'Felipe Otero':


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