Our Fabulous Plant Sale

Which we almost didn’t hold.

Empty beds and sticks in April

Empty beds and sticks in April. Green plants in rear are purchases being held for planting in our own garden

We had all the reasons. Spring was late this year. The garden looked like it had bad hair every day. The potted plants were brown or twiggy or leggy. It all looked so shabby we thought briefly about escaping to a condo. So we kept mum about our May day that had, in a decade, apparently become an anticipated community event.

We learned this one evening in early May when a stranger came knocking on our door. She figured this was the right place because of all the plants in the yard. She said she knew our plant sale was some time in May and she didn’t want to miss it because she was bringing some friends.

By May a veritable jungle

By May a veritable jungle

We looked at each other. Sunday, May 26. Snap decision.

We said good night, wondering if we really wanted to do this. Visions of potting plants, writing reams of labels, repairing signs, fertilizing, pruning and a hundred other tasks flashed through our minds. Generous rainfall and nippy temperatures had not made us enthusiastic about getting outside and dirtying up knees. Now we had no choice.

Decisions Decisions

Decisions Decisions

Hallelujah! Sunbeams replaced raindrops and Lady Spring dashed in, apologizing for her late arrival by squandering glorious, bright bouquets. Plants stopped dallying and started growing. Day by day the garden became more lush. Dead sticks came to life; we could finally distinguish good plants from the weeds that had been running amok.

By Sale Day the potted hydrangeas were actually ready to bloom. Too bad they had looked so tacky in April we ignored them and never gave them the pruning they needed. What a bunch of scragglers they were, but they were healthy scragglers and people bought ’em because you can’t believe our prices.

Flowering pomegranate is a good grower and is sought after

Flowering pomegranate is a good grower and is sought after

Our sales feature a wide variety of plants: camellias, hydrangeas, flowering shrubs and trees, natives, hostas, perennials and annuals. We take stem cuttings, do air layers, make divisions, grow from seed, con seedlings/young plants from family and friends–anything that works for propagating a plant. We give our plants some help from fertilizer, but we don’t force them or fuss over them with pesticides.

Collecting the stash before wheeling it to checkout

Collecting the stash before wheeling it to checkout

Propagation can be time-consuming if you hover, but over the years we’ve found that a little benign neglect can work wonders. It’s like Christmas in summer when you stumble on forgotten plants and they’re growing just fine without you. Since we only work with stalwarts from the garden, we’re not slaves to our potted plants, and we can be pretty sure that when they leave us, they’ll take a little benign neglect in stride.

The sale itself is only 2 hours during one afternoon, from 2 to 4, but we usually sell more than 300 plants. Except for 3-gallon camellias that are pricey (ten dollars), the rest sell for two, three, or four dollars, and we give a bunch away, too. As far as inventory goes, it’s mostly in my head, which is fine, because by Sale Day my abbreviated handwritten notes on a couple of wrinkled pages are so blurred they’re barely legible. (Do you think we’ll ever make it to the Fortune 500 list?)

Cari and son Shea from the Outer Banks relax after stashing their finds

Cari and son Shea from the Outer Banks relax after stashing their finds. Note plant signs and pictures

We keep prices low because we want people to experiment with lots of plants. We figure that if you choose a variety of plants, your garden will come alive with birds, bees and color. To guide gardeners in their choices, we put out over 150 plant-care signs, and people really do read them.

Visitors start queuing up at 1:30. Cars line both sides of our narrow street. Neighbors arrive pushing wheelbarrows. Some wait patiently, others use the time to poke around our garden. At 2 pm the fast-walk to the sale begins.

Linda shares a light moment with a visitor

Linda shares a light moment with a visitor

We couldn’t do it without good friends and Master Gardeners who have both garden smarts and common sense. It helps that they have a sixth sense for divining my tattered inventory. They pitch in with enthusiasm and energy. Jim mans the check-out, with help from Dot, Anne, or Bette Lou. Don, Tim, Jack or Sam will ferry people’s purchases to their cars. Linda, Janice, Larry, Quin, Bob and I answer questions.

Candy convinces a visitor to buy one of those hydrangeas

Candy convinces a visitor to buy one of those hydrangeas

Janice is a master salesperson, so she sometimes stations herself near nice but under-used plants; maybe they don’t have enough pot-appeal. Her positive approach can lead to a sellout. Meanwhile, Bob is the point man for camellias. He’s grown the plants from air layers he’s taken from our daughter’s collection and our garden.

Part of the fun is greeting newcomers and catching up with folks we may see only once a year. It’s also grand to get reports about how well last year’s purchases are doing. Those few words, “everything lived,” mean so much to us. Flowering pomegranate, saint johnswort, variegated Solomon’s seal and pink deutzia are some of the plants that have charmed our visitors.

Ruby, a nurse in WWII, and her son Marshall take a break

Ruby, a nurse in WWII, and her son Marshall take a break

Benches and chairs are scattered through the garden, so when people decide to “set a spell” they can enjoy refreshments served in our garage/studio by Elaine or Anne or Quin. Candy brings a plate of special treats every year, but after our volunteers do serious taste-testing, we’re never quite sure how much is left for visitors. It’s not exactly a café, but the table’s centerpiece, created by Janice with blooms from our garden, and the painted Victorian family that Linda positions among plants around the stone patio add a festive note.

Cris (right) and friends. One, an artist collects insect-eaten hibiscus leaves for printmaking

Cris (right) and friends collect insect-eaten hibiscus leaves for printmaking

Later, Linda will disburse the earnings. Granted, when most of the plants you are selling cost anywhere from 2 to 4 dollars, it’s pretty hard to make big bucks. But those two-dollar sales add up. After Bob and I take a share for expenses (yes, even with anonymous donations of used pots, and labels made from cheap venetian-blind slats, costs of potting soil, fertilizer, and especially water mount up) the remainder goes to the Albemarle Environmental Association.

Eshrat, originally from Iran, a great gardener, walked over a mile to get to the sale

Eshrat, originally from Iran, a great gardener, walked over a mile to get to the sale

With no administrative expenses, AEA has been able to give money to the Southern Environmental Law Center, fund scholarships to area students and taxidermy for exhibits at Merchants Millpond State Park. AEA’s popular brochure, Explore a Coastal Swamp, available at state Visitor Centers, has also been reprinted with sale proceeds.

But all that comes much later. Pretty promptly at four pm everyone pitches in lickety-split to bring in signs, clear tables and relocate chairs. Then we raise our glasses in celebration of another good day. The refrigerator is crammed with tasty

Louisiana iris, spirea shibori, fairy roses, variegated solomon's seal, native penstemon

A bouquet of Louisiana iris, spirea shibori, fairy roses, variegated solomon’s seal, and native penstemon from our garden, by Janice

side dishes and the oven is heating for the best pot luck supper you can imagine, seasoned with good conversation and friendly bantering.

This year was our best sale and garden open house yet. Not necessarily in terms of dollars and cents, but because luscious spring bloom, perfect weather on Sale Day and camaraderie of good friends and visitors combined to make it a perfect day. Even the bugs left us alone as we chatted quietly outdoors through the evening. We had worked hard since the beginning of May, and it was all worth it.

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2 Responses to Our Fabulous Plant Sale

  1. nridley5 says:

    I’m so sorry I missed your sale this year, and last year… One of these years I’m going to be there. Regardless, I have very fond memories of your garden and touring it with the Native Plants Class. You are a real inspiration to me! and obviously to many others!!!! Thank you so much!!! Nadine

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