More than 900 people, some from as far away as Iowa and South Dakota, showed up in Apple Valley last week, just to tuck fledgling flowers into fertilizer-laden soil and go back home empty-handed.

The gardeners and wannabes at Pahl's Market crafted moss baskets with red impatiens, purple petunias and other flowers or low-watering succulents. From there, the business will take over for a couple of months, nurturing the baskets in a climate-controlled greenhouse until early May. Then the owners will return to find baskets fully flowering or brimming with green succulents. They'll take them home or offer them to pleasantly surprised moms for Mother's Day.

More than 1,000 baskets are hanging at Pahl's with a tube dangling above each to drip a daily half-gallon dose of a fertilizer-water mix.

"After being cooped up all winter, they come to a warm greenhouse and make their own baskets and pick the colors," said co-owner Gary Pahl. The family-owned Pahl's Market, part of a five-generation produce-farm business, has attracted about 800 people or more to its March moss basket days in recent years.

The event started with 30 basket-makers in 1997, which didn't even cover advertising costs, Pahl said.

A few years later it took off after being featured in a local TV story.

Intensive care

A few small white butterflies flitted around the 70-degree greenhouse on Tuesday as a group of nurses from Children's Hospital stuck plant plugs in fertilizer-laced basket soil.

Nurse Jane Fisher of Bloomington is hoping the TLC at Pahl's will end her brown-thumb days.

"Every year I buy a hanging plant and every year it dies," Fisher said as she finished tucking 15 fledgling flowers into her basket.

With help from Pahl's gardeners, she picked red, yellow and purple flowers that like sunshine.

"I went for colors because I don't know plants," Fisher said.

Pahl's is known for its educational programs, said John Horsman, spokesman for the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association in Roseville.

"They are innovative in how they use moss baskets and getting folks into their greenhouse to grow moss baskets," he said.

Visiting hours

Some basketeers can't wait until May to see their blooming flora. So Pahl's actually offers visiting hours.

"Every day several people are in here looking at their baskets," said chief grower Lance Himmelwright. Hundreds of baskets hung from ceiling hooks nearby awaiting their daily shot of grow juice.

Himmelwright said he sees a lot of red-white-and-blue flower baskets, some of which were planted by fans of the Minnesota Twins, who wear those colors.

The coconut-fiber moss baskets after which the event is named have been mostly replaced by recycled pulp baskets that absorb less water, said general manager Tom Hartwell.

Starting family traditions

"It's a little like heaven in here in the winter," Hartwell said, standing near the hanging baskets, each tagged with the owner's name and a locator map number. Many of the planters return every year, often with kids or grandchildren, and make it a family tradition, Hartwell said.

It's a fun, growing experience for potential future gardeners, "and future gardeners become future customers," he added.

Customers can buy 16 inch-wide baskets with 12 plant plugs for $65, 20-inch baskets with 15 plugs for $85 or the mega three-tier bronze planter with 18 plugs in three coco-moss baskets for $310, said Master Gardener Jackie Overom.

Reunion time

This is the second year that Evelyn Gibbs drove 4 1/2 hours from her family cattle farm near Des Moines to make a basket with her daughter, Jill Gibbs, who lives in Lakeville.

Another daughter came from Chicago and they made a weekend of it, she said.

When Jill delivers the basket, which includes red impatiens and spiky grass, on Mother's Day, they get to visit again, Gibbs said.

Has Jill's rating with Mom improved?

"You betcha," she said.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283