Hartley Magazine

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Spring plant sales are prime shopping

It’s getting on for the time when my checkbook burns a hole in my pocket. Not a credit card: Many plant sales don’t take credit cards. And plant sales offer me some of my best plants.

For months now, the volunteers at my local conservatory have been nurturing unusual herbs for their annual herb sale. Other gardeners have been using their own greenhouses and back yards to raise native plants. Some garden club members simply divide their perennials for sale.

I love plant sales for a number of reasons: I’m supporting good causes – whether it’s a garden club that maintains suburban street planters or a restoration group that safeguards and nurtures precious remaining natural areas.

Though many of the plants were started in the dead of winter in hobby greenhouses, I trust that knowledgeable local gardeners have hardened them off in my actual climate. I trust them only to sell species and cultivars that are proven to work where I’m planted. And it’s been one of the few ways I could get native plants for my shady wildflower garden that I was sure hadn’t been swiped from the wild.

Another benefit of plant sales is the chance to meet and chat with those knowledgeable local gardeners. A well-trained garden center staffer can tell you a lot, but there’s no better informant than somebody who’s been there and planted that. Usually at local plant sales, there are volunteers assigned specifically to answer questions – and they may turn out to be my neighbors, with interesting gardens I can visit. If you’re a beginner gardener, there’s no better way to make sure you are starting out with plants that are likely to work well for you.

Some plant sales, mostly those that focus on perennials and natives, take place in early spring – March in the Chicago area, where I live. Those that focus more on vegetable transplants and herbs tend to be later, closer to planting-out time.

So how do you find plant sales? Ask veteran gardeners on your block. Pay attention to the calendar listings in your local newspaper. Watch for flyers on bulletin boards at churches, libraries and supermarkets. And, of course, search online for “plant sale” and the names of your town and neighboring towns. I tend to search for “native plant sale” and “Illinois” and “Indiana,” because I’m willing to travel a ways for a chance at rare local species.
There are two drawbacks to plant sales: I always spend way more than I’ve budgeted (I’m trying to keep an actual spreadsheet garden budget this year, and already the category “seeds” is far in the red).

And if you don’t duck, especially if you have a greenhouse, you may find yourself drafted to help out next year. But that can be a good thing. Joining a garden club or being a volunteer is an unbeatable way to meet garden mentors and like-minded friends.