The trunk of your car is full of bright green plants that you’ve just selected at the Buncombe County Extension Master GardenerSM Plant Sale. You wave bye to a friend talking to a Master Gardener about the best perennials for a damp, shady area. Then you turn your attention to the busy parking lot, anxious to get home and put your new plants in the ground.
Each year, you look forward to this plant sale. But have you ever stopped to think what it takes to get those healthy, thriving plants ready for you to see, buy, and grow in your garden?
Extension Master Gardener Volunteers (EMGVs) have been running the plant sale annually for the past eight years—usually the Saturday before Mother’s Day. It’s their biggest fundraiser and a never-ending, year-round project that involves an army of volunteers. The EMGVs call it their “happy event” where the entire organization comes together to bring high-quality plants to the public—plus buckets full of knowledge and advice.
It all begins with a “pot party.” As soon as one sale is over, EMGVs gather to prepare planting pots for the next sale. EMGVs and their friends gather up all the leftover black plastic pots that they can find languishing in garages and under decks. They scour the Lowe’s Garden Center and with management consent gladly collect pots dropped off for recycling. Equipped with wash tubs, brushes, and gloves, EMGVs arrive at the “pot party” ready to scrub, sanitize, stack, and store all these donated pots, making them ready for plants that will find new homes the following year.
Next come “the digs.” All plants at the plant sale are donated and dug from EMGVs’ own gardens, and then potted in top-quality potting soil. Dig coordinators visit each garden and work with the owner to identify which plants are to be donated. They inspect the plants for quality, gather information for labels, and discuss the plants’ growth habits and care requirements with the owner. This selection process ensures that a wide variety of plants are available at the sale, that they are healthy and pest-free, and that factual and experiential data are gathered and can be passed along to the purchaser.
Shrubs and trees are dug and potted in the fall to give their root systems time to develop over winter. Perennials are dug in the spring, about the last week of March. The newly potted plants have about three to four weeks to acclimate before the sale. Garden owners take care of the potted plants until sale time—watering, weather protection, and sun/shade adaptation.
Although it may sound like hard work, “the digs” are really a fun time for the EMGVs. They get to work together, visit each other’s gardens, gather ideas on how to coordinate plants in a landscape, and collect new tips for success. All this sharing and learning at the “digs” then becomes valuable information the EMGVs share with the public at the plant sale and beyond.
Getting ready for “day of.” By now, there’s a complete inventory of plants available for the sale. Every pot is labeled with its common and botanical name, cultivar if known, environmental factors, and mature size. Signage is prepared with colorful plant photos. QR codes, included on plant labels, are linked to the North Carolina State University Plant Toolbox website and allow buyers to call up in-depth information about a particular plant in real time.
“Rush hour” begins. In the span of about 15 hours, EMGVs must transport over 5000 plants from garden owners’ homes to the sale site. Pick-up and delivery of plants begin late Friday afternoon and conclude early Saturday morning before sale time. EMGVs are helped with this monumental task by spouses, significant others, friends, and family—anyone who can give time, muscle-power, or a pick-up truck to the cause. Transportation and set up are considered the most difficult operations of the plant sale—so much must be done, so quickly, during a limited timeframe. Threatening weather—torrential rain, strong winds, a sudden cold snap—can spell disaster. There are no second chances.
Growing and changing. In its eight-year history, the plant sale is always looking for ways to improve. This year, the event added vegetable starts among its 5000 plants across 331 varieties, and a Kids Corner where children planted marigold seeds along with their accompanying adult. Gently used and some unused garden items, such as tools, yard art, gloves, garden books, and ceramic pots, are also available. A new location in 2022 offered greater visibility, easier access, and expanded parking for the public.
Success. Revenue from the plant sale supports all Buncombe County EMG programs—school grants, The Learning Garden, a therapeutic garden at the VA, Youth Outreach, the HelpLine, Information Tables, and Gardening in the Mountains outside speaker honorariums.
“This is a busy and fun event that brings Master Gardeners and the public together to learn from each other and share enthusiasm for gardening,” exclaim plant sale co-chairs, Judy Hamrick and Barb Harrison. “We will not sell a plant that isn’t ready or doesn’t look good. It all starts behind the scenes with a team of dedicated volunteers who love sharing their plants and gardening know-how with others. They make it happen so that people who give our plants new homes will be successful.”
Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.