While 'Insta-famous' indoor plants such as the fiddle leaf fig and monstera have been popular for several years and helped kickstart many a green-fingered obsession, the outbreak of COVID-19 has played a role in an increased demand for garden supplies and plants.
With people stuck at home through lockdowns and closures of state and international borders, many are reallocating savings and spare time to beautifying their homes and gardens.
This obsession with greening our homes is proving to be a 'growth' industry. According to IbisWorld, Australians spent $2.346 billion on trees, shrubs and plants in 2020–21.
But what happens if, despite your best efforts, your dreams of a fertile oasis turn into a nightmare, and you discover you're less green finger and more brown thumb? Can you return dead plants for a refund or exchange?
The sooner the customer alerts the retailer of the issue with the plant, the better.
There's no hard and fast answer, it really depends on what the issue is and which retailer you bought it from.
"As is the case with any good or service, businesses aren't obligated to offer a refund or exchange for any change-of-mind plant purchases," says Alison Elliott, head of policy and government relations at CHOICE.
"However, you are entitled to a refund or replacement if the item has a major failure, or if it has two or more minor failures that, had you been aware of, mean you would not have purchased the item."
"You are entitled to a refund or replacement if the item has a major failure"Alison Elliott, head of policy and government relations at CHOICE
If your plant has failed to thrive and you're reasonably confident it wasn't because of what you did or didn't do after purchase (such as follow the care instructions from the time of purchase), keep hold of the plant and contact the retailer within a reasonable period after the failure becomes apparent.
"The sooner the customer alerts the retailer of the issue with the plant, the better," says Alison.
Some retailers (see Garden centre plant guarantees, below) may accept change-of-mind returns in addition to their obligations under the ACL. It's worth checking the return policy of your local store before you buy.
We surveyed CHOICE members and supporters* to ask them about their experiences of buying and returning plants.
Around one in 10 respondents told us they'd tried to return a plant – with 9 in 10 of those successfully obtaining a refund or replacement. The most common reasons for the returns were that the plant had died (51%) or failed to establish/thrive (32%).
"Bunnings have always been excellent in replacing or refunding dead plants," says one respondent. "In some cases it was my own fault with overwatering, other times it was for no apparent reason. If I provided a receipt, there were no questions asked regarding replacement."
Most respondents (89%) had never tried to return a plant
Another comments: "Even though [Bunnings] have refunded us on a number of occasions, the staff have been very sceptical when doing so, which makes us feel uncomfortable."
One respondent has had mixed results, depending on where they shopped. "Bunnings [guarantee] their plants, very happy. Mitre 10 was very difficult to return or get them to accept liability. Local florist said plant problems were my fault and accepted no liability."
Most respondents (89%) had never tried to return a plant. Some say that's because they had no idea it could be an option. "I have never tried to return a plant!" says one. "Good idea, though. I always assume that failure to thrive is my fault."
*A total of 1242 Voice Your Choice members and supporters across Australia took part in our survey, which we carried out in July 2021.
Just because a garden centre or nursery may refund you if your maidenhair fern has passed over into the plant afterlife, should you go to the bother of returning it?
Many respondents were adamant that it isn't the responsibility of the retailer to issue a refund, with comments including "I don't believe it's ethical to return plants as the outcome of the health of the plants generally depends on the knowledge of the purchaser", and "I think it would be most unfair to expect a nursery to give a refund for a plant that may have been chosen, without regard to the soil type, hours of sunlight needed, amount of protection from severe weather needed."
I think that in the vast majority of cases, a plant failure would be down to the gardener, i.e. me!
Several people commented that they themselves would likely be to blame for any plant deaths, and didn't think it was fair to expect a seller to refund them for their mistakes.
"I think that in the vast majority of cases, a plant failure would be down to the gardener i.e. me!" says one respondent. Another comments: "I don't return plants. I'm not a gardener, so the reason a few plants have died is more than likely my fault and has nothing to do with the quality of the plant."
However, others say they'd be more likely to try to return a plant if there was an obvious issue with it, such as if it was root bound.
Plant doing poorly? Get advice from the store
Many people commented on the difficulty in being able to know – and prove – that a plant died through no fault of their own.
Many of the garden centres we spoke to say it's down to common sense – if you're not happy with the plant's performance, come in and have a chat about what your options are. In most cases, trained staff will be able to identify the problem and provide advice on where you're going wrong.
And if you're prone to user error, before you buy, ask for help selecting the right plant for your growing conditions and get advice on how to care for it properly.
Keep receipts and proof of purchase
You'll need a receipt or other proof of purchase if you want to make any type of return, but many respondents insist this is easier said than done – especially if you're making a return months later.
If you're concerned you might lose your proof of purchase, or that a receipt might fade over time, the ACCC suggests you "keep receipts in a safe, dry place and take a copy or photo of them if you are worried about fading. You can also use the ACCC Shopper app for storing receipts."
Some stores may also email you a receipt.
It's worth checking the return policy of your local store before you buy.
We compared the return policies for six of the biggest garden supplies retailers in Australia by market share, according to IbisWorld.
(Note: Not all of the retailers listed below have stores in every state, as the industry is typified by small-scale operators.)
As long as you have your receipt, the home improvement giant will let you return your plant (in or out of a pot) to any branch for a refund or exchange for up to 12 months.
However, there are some exceptions. The policy "excludes seedlings, which include flower and vegetable seedlings as well as potted colour (bloomers), [which] are short-lived plants that are not expected to live for more than 3–5 months in the garden."
Mitre 10 and Home, Timber & Hardware
Most branches are independently owned, so there's no standard returns policy that applies to all stores in addition to their obligations under the ACL.
However, a spokesperson confirms all stores will work with a customer on a case-by-case basis if there are any issues, and reiterates the importance of talking to staff about how to care for a plant and what type of growing conditions it needs so that you get the right product in the first place.
Australian Native Landscapes
Huw Martin, Australian Native Landscapes (ANL) group retail manager, says that in most, but not all, cases ANL will accept change of mind refunds or exchanges (with proof of purchase) as long as the plant is unused and in resellable condition.
If you're having issues with a plant's performance, bring it into one of their nurseries where a trained horticulturalist will assess the situation on a case-by-case basis.
Diaco's Garden Nursery
Diaco's will exchange your item for a credit note if returned within seven days with the original receipt. The credit note is valid for three years.
Flower Power may issue a voucher (with proof of purchase) for change of mind purchases if the product is unused and in saleable condition.
Waldecks Garden Centres
"Waldecks has had a Plant Back Guarantee in place since the company was established in 1968, and we would never hesitate to replace a plant should it not thrive at home, especially as we grow the majority of our greenstock at our own growing nursery and absolutely guarantee the quality of our products," says Sophie Gallop, brand manager at Waldecks Garden Centres.
"We see this as an opportunity to help our customers gain knowledge and become better gardeners through education about why their plant may not have thrived, through consultation with our trained horticultural team.
"Our Plant Back Guarantee is valid for 12 months from purchase, and proof of purchase must be shown. We are more than happy to offer an exchange or credit note for change-of-mind purchases, provided the plant is returned in a saleable condition within seven days from purchase, again with proof of purchase."
Tim Farrugia, qualified horticulturalist at Burbank House & Garden on NSW's Central Coast, shares his advice on picking the best plant for your home.
1. Bigger isn't always better
"It's not always best to choose the biggest of the bunch as they may have been sitting in the nursery for much longer and you run the risk of it potentially being root bound."
2. Check if it's root bound
"An easy trick to check if a plant is too root bound is to give the pot a slight squeeze. If there's no give at all, it potentially shows the roots have taken up all the space in the pot."
But a pot that's full of roots isn't always a terrible thing, says Farrugia.
"Plants like lavender have vast root systems and quickly fill a pot to the brim. Give them a good soak before planting, take them out of their pot and give the roots a good tease or even cut with a sharp knife to get them out of the pot shape. Water thoroughly after planting."
3. Take a closer look
Farrugia says to check the plant for any pests and diseases. "A plant with lots of dead foliage, particularly close to the stem down low, can indicate stress or that it's been poorly looked after."
4. Consider its position
"To minimise shock, pick your plants from a nursery that has their plants in a similar position to where you want to plant it at home (i.e. full sun)," he says.
"There's no point buying plants that have been growing in the shade if you wish to plant them straight into a full sun position as there's a strong likelihood of them burning, particularly in summer."
5. Read the plant labels
"These will tell you which plant suits your situation. If you're not sure, chat with the staff to see what they recommend."
6. Plant outdoors plants ASAP
"My number one advice is to plant them as soon as possible, weather permitting (i.e. don't plant on a 40℃ day)," Farrugia says. "If your plants are sitting in the sun waiting to be planted, they can dry out. Once dry, they burn and die quickly after."
7. But wait before repotting indoor plants
"Try to leave indoor plants in their original nursery pot to begin with and avoid potting indoor plants in the middle of winter – many come from tropical climates and don't enjoy being fiddled with in the cooler months."
8. Pot size matters
When repotting, Farrugia advises to use pots that are only one or two sizes bigger than the original. "Any bigger and you risk the outermost potting mix staying damp for too long and rotting the roots."
9. Add perlite
"A bag of perlite is always handy to have. I recommend adding a ratio of 1:5 perlite to premium potting mix for my indoor plants, depending on drainage needs."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.