Updated: May 22, 2021
When you think of a local plant sale, do you picture a tiny, awkwardly staffed event offering up mediocre-looking plants? If this is you, local plant sales can be a hard sell, especially when garden centers have big inventories or make plant shopping easy. But here in Ramsey County, we’re fortunate to be overrun with exceptional plants sales. With practice and preparation, you can shop successfully, save money, make an investment in your community and have a blast.
The dollars you spend at plant sales may go to a worthy cause, like kids’ scholarships or helping a horticulture group be accessible to people who can’t afford the membership fees. Check into what a sale is raising money for and then shop where your heart leads—if you need to buy plants anyway, why not simultaneously make a difference in people’s lives?
Prices at local plant sales can be hard to beat. Some sales take plant donations from their organization’s members or partner with growers who can wholesale small perennials that retail for as little as $3. As long as the quality is high, don’t hesitate to start small, since perennials will expand with time and TLC.
A local plant sale can be a lively community hub. At my favorite plant sale, I look forward to seeing fellow volunteers and running into neighbors, friends and coworkers. Once, while I was volunteering at a sale, a shopper introduced herself (she was a friend of a fellow volunteer) and asked if she could hire me to work in her garden. I ended up helping prep her drop-dead gorgeous landscape for a garden club tour and earned enough cash to buy myself expensive pruners. In sum, I make more connections and happy memories at local plant sales than any plant nursery.
The inventory at a local sale is often adapted to your hardiness zone, and some sales offer more unique plant varieties than big box stores. As a bonus, chances are good you’ll interact with a gardener who has experience with the plant. If they’re relying on word of mouth (rather than advertising) to promote their sale, they’ll probably knock themselves out to help you.
Myself, I spend the bulk of my gardening budget at a local plant sale. It’s one of the social highlights of my year. But I do spend time getting ready. It’s been fun making plant shopping preparations one of my spring rituals.
Here are some ways to think about local plant sales that may help you decide where to shop and how to be successful:
Are the plants certified? If they aren’t, then you have no guarantee that the plants haven’t comingled with annoying weeds or been treated with pesticides. Take a moment to find out if the growers were vetted by the organization selling them.
Can you pre-order? Some sales are run this way and others are definitely not. Also, check if there are perks available, such as VIP early shopping in exchange for a volunteer shift.
If the plants aren’t bar coded, how does the check-out process work? Spend some time reading any “how to do the sale” materials. For instance, does the organization have a tally sheet that you can prepare ahead of time to streamline your checkout experience? Trust me, researching the logistics will be worth it on the day you shop.
How do you haul your plants, and do you need to bring a wagon or cart? If the sale offers cardboard flats, bring an extra box in case they run out. In other words, come prepared to haul—in comfort—more plants than you think you’ll buy. If the plants are well-priced, the temptation to impulse shop can be overwhelming, and you don’t want to abort your plant browsing because of sore arms.
Is the sale popular, and should you arrive early to line up at the door? Will you need to carve out several hours that day? What could be more appealing to an avid gardener than taking a day off work to get first crack at awesome plants? Find out what the experts recommend. And if waiting in line sounds tedious, drag a gardener friend along, bring coffee and use the time in line to catch up.
Make a list of what you need, and if the sale posts its inventory in advance, edit your list based on the most current information.
While it’s probable that a local plant sale accepts credit cards, check if cash or a check will be needed.
Last but not least, dress for the weather. Plant sales often happen in May, and May weather is fickle. Remember: we can see 70⁰ F one day and snowflakes the next. If the sale is outdoors and happens rain or shine, you can become miserable in no time if showers roll in. It’d be a pity to have to abandon shopping because you left your gear at home.
If you haven’t shopped a local plant sale, I hope you consider supporting your community and benefitting an organization that you care about (and get some terrific plants in the bargain). Interview your gardener friends for their favorite venues, check out the plant sale listings in Northern Gardener (MN Hort. Society), do an internet search using the keywords “extension master gardener” and “plant sale,” or watch your voting district’s event calendar in their newsletter. And when all your preparations are finished, don’t forget to have fun!
(Covid-19 caveat: Some local plant sales were cancelled in 2020. Some are back in business this year, but with a modified inventory or layout. Bear in mind that your experience of a plant sale this year may be quite different if you attend again after the pandemic runs its course.)