EARTH EDUCATION: On stakes and customer service

One thing that's nagged at me a bit since I started my garden is that I've gotten most of my supplies at big-box stores. My tomatoes, peppers and herbs came from the farmers' market, but the supplies I've gotten since - stakes, pest control, fertilizer - I've gotten at either Lowe's or Home Depot.

There are advantages, of course. The big stores stock a lot of items, and they usually sell them for less money. I just kept feeling that I should be patronizing local nurseries, if I could figure out where they were. Last week I finally got the motivation I needed. My tomatoes outgrew their stakes again, and neither Lowe's or Home Depot had the six-footers I needed. (Well, Home Depot had some thin bamboo ones, which I tried. They are currently bent over the ground like bowstrings.) My search for macho stakes sent me to the online yellow pages, in search of nurseries.

The first one listed was less than a mile from my house, on a main drag that I drive every day. I knew that it was there; I had registered its presence. But apparently I had not fully assimilated this knowledge, because a) I had to trace the address in my head to figure out where it was, and b) it had never occurred to me to stop there before. This is not the first time this has happened. I can drive past buildings for years without being truly conscious of their purpose. If and when I need to actually visit those places, it gives me an odd feeling, like the building was merely a facade on a movie set that has magically sprouted a third dimension.

Anyway. The nursery's sudden existence pleased me, because it is only a couple of minutes away. It would be so handy to have garden experts so close by. Plus, since nurseries generally are not chains, I figured the service would be better and more knowledgeable than at a big store. With the rain keeping me from my weeding, I headed out in search of stakes. Now I should clarify something. I am an avoider of salespeople. I skulk around the margins like a shoplifter and try not to catch the employees' attention. At the same time, I'm bad at being the first to speak, so if I really do need help I usually need someone to ask.

I never claimed to be rational.

When I walked into the nursery right down the hill from my house, no one acknowledged my existence. They would not even have said hi if I hadn't caught their eyes and said it first. I saw stakes outside and went to look; when came back in, no one asked if I needed any help. They seemed to be pretending I wasn't there.

I was the only customer in the store.

Even if I'd been in my usual reticent mood, I would have felt almost like an intruder. Today I had questions. And I was appalled. It was raining, there was NO ONE there, and they couldn't be bothered to even say hello. I decided not to ask if I was missing anything. No one acknowledged me on my way out, either. And no, I didn't let the door hit me in the behind.

As it turns out, there's another store just a couple of miles down the road. I went inside, and someone immediately asked if he could help me. This store had a smaller inventory, but they did have seven-foot stakes with steel cores, and the owners bring their dog to work, so they must be good people.

Now, at the end of the day, the garden looks much more organized. The tomato plants that were bending the bamboo stakes to the ground are now secured to their sturdier supports. One required another four-foot stake to contain the overflow, and it's already topping six feet. Now all I have to do is foil the squirrels, and I'm golden.