Veteran gardeners will tell you there’s no better place to buy plants than at a local plant sale. These events are usually fundraisers sponsored by garden clubs, community organizations, and botanical gardens and arboretums. They’re a great way for these groups to raise money — and a great way for gardeners to cultivate their hobby.
“You don’t have to buy just yellow marigolds, red geraniums and white impatiens,” said Steve Bender, senior editor at Southern Living magazine and author of “The New Southern Living Garden Book” (Oxmoor House). “You get plants that are adapted for your area, and you get a garden that doesn’t look like every other garden in the U.S.”
Heirloom vegetable varieties, unusual herbs such as chervil and lovage, lovingly tended perennials from a garden-club member’s yard, hard-to-find native plants — these are just a few of the reasons gardeners love local plant sales.
That said, shopping a plant sale is a little different from stopping by the hardware store to pick up a flat of those yellow marigolds. Keep these tips in mind for a successful experience.
Do some research: Find sales in your area by conducting a little Internet research to decide which events best fit your needs and schedule.
“Most of the plant sales have Web pages, and a lot of times [organizers include] a list of the plants for sale,” said Julie Marcus, senior horticulturist and plant sale chair at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. She added that some organizations will specialize in certain types of plants, such as only vegetables or just ornamental plants, while others may offer a variety. Their online list often includes growing information (how large the plant will get, whether it needs sun or shade, etc.).
If there are limited details online, contact the organization, added Samantha Peckham, horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wis.
Control yourself: Make a shopping list as you scout the inventory of available plants, added Martha Stein, master gardener and president of the board of the master gardener program in Cumberland County, Maine.
“It’s easy to buy too much,” Stein said. Besides being expensive, she added, “you have to find the time to plant everything and find room for it all, which can be stressful.”
Pre-sale perks: Many plant sale organizers offer preordering, which gives shoppers a way to secure desired plants. The deadline to preorder, however, precedes the sale date, often by several weeks. And, you may have to pay in advance. Also be mindful of the scheduled date and times of pickup, which may differ from the actual sale hours.
Some sales offer early-bird hours for members of the sponsoring organization; for some, it’s worth joining to reap the benefits of first dibs and lighter crowds.
Lining up: Many community plant sales are highly anticipated by veteran gardeners. Consider getting there before the doors open; many sales will have people lining up to get first crack at popular varieties.
Native resource: Buying native plants from a community sale is a boon for ecologically minded gardeners who have trouble locating these plants at garden centers and big-box stores. Plus, Marcus added, buying them at a local sale can be one of the best ways to ensure these plants were sustainably grown and are not endangered species that were harvested in the wild. Most vendors are vetted by the organizations, and in the case of some botanical gardens, the plants were likely grown on-site. (For growing information on native species, check out the Wildflower Center’s database of more than 7,000 native plants, broken down by state.)
Dress the part: Most sales are held rain or shine, sometimes indoors and sometimes outside. Dress accordingly. Picking up plants and flats can get messy; gardeners would be wise to wear clothes and shoes that can get a little dirty. And don’t forget to bring a pair of garden gloves.
Come equipped: Bring trays, cardboard boxes, light but sturdy totes or wagons to carry plants. Unlike stores, most garden sales won’t have enough — or any — carts, experts said. Peckham also suggested putting an old blanket or another sort of covering for your car seat or floor to prevent messes when transporting plants home.
Buyer beware: Bender urges shoppers to examine plants before they buy them. Check out the stems, look for new growth (that’s a good sign) and wilted leaves (bad sign). Examine the root system: Too many roots growing through the bottom of a container indicates the plant has been potted for too long. Also turn over leaves and check the soil to ensure the plant doesn’t have any insects or insect eggs on it.
“You don’t want to bring home whiteflies, aphids or slugs,” Bender said.
Sometimes weeds come along for the ride, so be sure to remove them before planting.
Finally, rethink buying a beautiful plant that has no label. Unless the seller can assure you what it is, you may inadvertently be introducing an aggressive thug into your garden.
Cash is (usually) king: Find out what kind of payment the organizers will take. Cash is required at some, others may accept personal checks. Credit and debit cards may or may not be welcome.
Take advantage of expert wisdom: Plant sales are a great time to get free expert gardening advice. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Marcus said. “[Volunteers at the sales are] very helpful with information. That makes it fun and makes it an event.”