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Monday, April 28, 2008

Plant Sale - the story

Many of you have written comments here asking about the details behind our plant sale. We are finally getting a wonderfully wet, rainy day so I thought I'd sit and write a bit about the sale.

This first photo shows Tradescantia 'Little White Doll' which is the best Tradescantia in my garden. It stays in a clump and increases at a nice (but not alarming) rate. It's on my "to dig" list for this Wednesday. Back to the sale...

Five years ago my oldest daughter was in 9th grade and a new member of our high school marching band. They were having a multiple family garage sale (rummage sale/yard sale) to raise funds. We had no junk that we were willing to part with but I had many plants so I dug them up and brought them to the sale. It was mostly Echinacea (purple cone flowers), Rudbeckia (black eyed susans) and lots of daylilies. The daylilies were in buckets of water and when somebody purchased them I pulled them out and wrapped them in newspaper like a slab of meat at the butcher shop. I know for sure I took in at least $500 at that spot and told the parents that since I still had more plants, they should come to my house two weeks later and I'd have a plant sale from here. Most plants were not pre-potted and I dug as people ordered. I think I limped for two weeks after that but we took in another $1200 or $1400. Woohoo!

Since then the plant sale has gone through some changes. I try hard to pre-dig and pot up as much as possible. Each year the list of plants changes depending on what I have excess of in the garden. This year we'll have lots of Geranium cantabrigiense 'Karmina' that you see in this photo.

One hundred percent of our profit is split up and deposited in accounts for students in the marching band. They can't touch the money, it goes to help pay for the week of summer band camp. Many families in our area are having a hard time making ends meet. Some of them have two or three kids in the band and this sale really makes a difference. Students that work the whole sale have earned as much as $100 in their account.

I try hard to offer plants that look as good as what you would get at any top notch nursery. The botanical names are written on 8 inch long pieces of plastic mini-blinds. If I know the cultivar name, that too is written on the tag. Since I pot up roughly 600 plants, that's a lot of writing!

While I realize that many people aren't familiar with the botanical names, I find nick names very misleading. I do have plenty of lists available at the sale for people to look up names and planting information. Each year I also print out 6 - 8 color photos and laminate them for the sale. So slowly but surely my photos are increasing. Hopefully I will have photos of everything in a few more years. The photos always help sell the plants. People are used to buying things in bloom and don't realize they've been forced to bloom much earlier than their natural cycle. Our plants are not forced so if you buy Rudbeckia now, they don't look like much in their pots but come August...WOW!

The profits of three of the last four plants sales went to the marching band. In 2006 though I did not donate any money to them, and made that clear to every customer who came here. Still, I sold out of plants in a few hours. I had been very annoyed by some parents in the band at the previous sale and wasn't sure I wanted to continue to work with them. The band director at that time never once even looked me in the eye and said "Thank you". Maybe I was being petty but I felt it was a simple thing to say. Luckily we have a new director who is amazing. He even came and participated in the sale, something that had never happened before.

All the advance work, digging, dividing, moving soil, watering pots and so on is done by me. In past years my mom helped quite a bit and my daughter Lauren wrote many tags. This year my mom isn't here to help and Lauren is away at school. My husband Don is not a gardener but without him, this wouldn't be possible at all. He does much of the garden clean up including my potting area plus he picks up the slack in the household with laundry, food shopping, cooking and cleaning. Don takes care of all the things like making sure we have a money box with lots of change plus he runs the cashier table during the sale so that I can answer questions.

I wish I knew how to divide the Iberis in the above photo. There are four massive clumps of it just bursting into bloom and I would have liked to have some potted up.

This year we will offer Centaurea montana for the first time. As the sale was always here on our property, people were drawn to plants that were in bloom at the time of the sale (the sale is ALWAYS the Saturday before Mother's Day). Customers would walk my gardens and ask for things that were not potted up. Sometimes I would dig them and other times I just couldn't. This year they will be happy to get this plant but the pieces left in my garden probably won't bloom for me :-(

A big change this year is that the sale will be held at the school, Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington. Last year we had 40 students here and so many cars with customers that our road was almost impassable. One older woman insisted on trying to pet my doodle-dog even though she was asked not to and Calie jumped on her. The woman received a cut on her chin and we were all very nervous. I decided that I couldn't take a chance that my family would be sued for an accident on our property and the school immediately agreed to allow us to hold the sale there. Calie will be staying home.

Any of you who read my blog know I love Sedums and Sempervivums. There will be plenty of varieties available this year. In fact, I could dig many more but nothing is worse than digging a beautiful plant and then not having it sell.

People occasionally try to bargain or offer half price on a plant that is smaller than it's counterparts. My feeling is that this is a fund raiser, not a "let's clear Melanie's garden of all plants" so I don't allow any bargaining. I do allow people to come during the week before the sale though. During the sale itself I am the only person who can answer questions about perennials and there just isn't enough time for me to help every customer. By fielding a few customers in advance, it eases the crush that Saturday morning. Plus I can usually dig more plants to replace what was sold.

This is Heliopsis 'Summer Nights'. I have a large clump but will not be dividing it. By leaving the deadheads on the flowers it seeded around. The seedlings are not all the same, they have different degrees of purple coloration so I realize they can't be called 'Summer Nights' but they are Heliopsis. I weed out any that don't have strong purple colors and will have a few pots of the darkest seedlings for sale (all are bloom size).

If I don't know a cultivar name, I label it by color. After experience I realize that most customers don't care about the name. This Astilbe has been in my garden for many years but was given to me without a name. I've got 16 pots of this beauty and the labels say Astilbe - White.

Unfortunately, this year I've been getting that feeling again. There are a few parents that just spoil the mood and I think this will be the last sale for the marching band. The other night we had a meeting and one parent said she wanted to make some suggestions about the sale (uh oh). She suggested that I add names on the tags that people could recognize instead of those impossible names. I explained that I only have time to write one name, either the botanical name or the nick name and I choose to write the botanical name so people can google the information about the plant and get the right information. This parent continued to say that I should also include the growing information on the tag and maybe draw a sun or a cloud so customers would know where to plant it. I bit my tongue because I wanted to ask if I should also go to each individual customers house and dig the hole. Right now it takes at least 10 hours to write those labels. Imagine if I had to put more information on them!

I'll close this post out with a shot of Anemone's in my garden. They are quite late emerging from the soil so I hope I find them in time to dig up a few.

Some years we've had donations of plants. Last year a friend donated huge clumps of Geranium nudosum and it was very popular. Variegated Hosta are something that I could always use but I haven't had any donations this year. One thing I can't do is go dig those donations (some parents have offered plants in the past and mentioned that I never came and dug them out). I will gladly divide and pot up any clumps that are dropped off here but I can barely find time to sit down to eat a meal and really just can't go to other gardens too.

(Oops, a quick edit added here. I forgot that I do have a wonderful donation of Monarda coming. Last year the red Monarda was very popular as it is such a butterfly magnet so I'm happy to be getting more. Thanks Kim!)

Finally, to answer Dave's question about whether the kids help at the sale, yes they help. The kids come an hour before the sale to help set up the tables and benches. They bring any wagons they might own. We ask everybody to bring recycled plastic supermarket bags. The kids are supposed to bag each plant and help bring them to the customers cars. We always make sure they work in teams, no student should be going alone to any car. Since I don't limit the amount of students who can participate we end up with half the band here so there is plenty of down time for them to sit and eat donuts, or play frisbee or if the weather permits, just lay on the lawn and learn to enjoy being outdoors for a change.

This year I'll ask two or three strong students to come here Friday evening to help load the truck. We'll be renting a truck to get the plants to the school. It eats into our profits a bit but we saved quite a bit of money thanks to the potting soil donation from Zaino's Nursery.

I know some of you have mentioned that you will be coming to the sale. Don't forget to say hello to me! I might only have time for a quick handshake or a hug but I really would love to say "hi".

Tomorrow I'm chaperoning a trip to the Bronx Zoo (amazingly cool place). Wednesday I'll be digging again and over the next week and a half I will continue to post photos of plants that we will feature at the sale. The list of daylilies alone is something to see.

Sorry this was so long, there's still so much to tell about the sale.


redrahde said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
redrahde said...

The plant sale sounds wonderful. I wish I didn't live half a country away!

When you dig you daylilies, how many fans do you put in a pot and what size pot do you use? Assuming you dig the entire clump, does the part you put back in your garden bloom for you in the same year? I'm thinking of doing this for one of my garden clubs next year. Daylilies here are almost knee high--of course, I'm a short person.

By the way, you should have asked the lady with the "helpful suggestions" if she was willing to come and fill out the labels while you potted plants. Bet she would have crawfished into oblivion. Generally, those people are not too keen on backing up their suggestions with their own manual labor.

easygardener said...

The plant sale sounds like a lot of hard work. Well done.
I do so agree that pictures help to sell plants. So many lovely plants are ignored because they aren't in flower, and consequently can look very uninspiring.


Wow! what a project! I'm sure it's quite a learning experience for the kids too

cindee said...

OmGosh you are a Saint! I can totally understand about parents. My kids were also in band. I really appreciate all your hard work and your time. You are really doing above and beyond. I know there are people that just don't understand all the work involved. We were also very involved in Boy Scouts with my sons troop. I always felt they were a better group to work with then the band. Oh and then there was Choir. Yikes that was another one I couldn't deal with. Talk about demanding parents. I am so glad my kids are out of school. LOL(-: I wish I lived there I would come and buy lots of plants from your sale!!! Good luck and I hope it turns out wonderful!!!!

Helen said...

What a lot of work for you. I know exactly what you mean about other parents - you take the initiative and then someone comes along and starts telling you how to do it - typical. I think you could quite legitimately say that now your children arent in the band you have decided to move on to another charity and maybe donate the money between a couple each year. Have fun at the zoo

Jane Marie said...

You are amazingly generous. My daughters were in band, so I know what you are dealing with when you mention the band parents.
Your garden must be acres large in order to sell so much each year.

WiseAcre said...

Arrgh. Wish I had the time to keep up with all the blogs. I would have made a point to go down to Long Island just to attend the plant sale and maybe buy it out :) looks like I'll be a week or two late.

Anonymous said...

Wow Melanie, this is so awesome!!! Wish I could come up, buy some semps and sedums and say hello! I can totally relate to your moving the sale to the school. We live on a very sharp curve with NO street parking, so yard sales and the like are out around here, too. And poor Calie! This will be less stressful for all of you. Wretched litigious society! Anyway, hope it goes well and you have a great time!

Dave said...


Parent's like you are why band's are able to function. I was lucky to have great parents around at the last band I directed and I know without a doubt how important they are! This is a great post, thanks for sharing so much detailed information!

I would have been tempted to say to the other parent "You're volunteering to do the labeling right?" In my mind if a person isn't willing to do the work their suggestion brings then it isn't worth doing.

Maybe one day I'll have enough variety in my gardens to do a similar plant sale!

Melanie said...

Hi Pauline, I try to pot up 3 fans per pot. My goal is to get the plants to hit the ground running and insure that they bloom this summer. It's the number one way to get repeat business next year. Sometimes the piece I put back in the garden blooms and sometimes it doesn't. It usually takes a year to recover.

easygardener, people comment often on the unusual plants in my garden and I keep telling them that they look awful in pots or weren't in bloom when I bought them. It's the hardest thing in the world to sell something that's not even in bud yet.

Melissa, I think the kids really enjoy the sale. I'm so happy when I see them all sitting outside and running around with the wagons and frisbees.

Cindee, it's funny how some groups are wonderful and others have a reputation for demanding. Most of the parents I've met through band are fabulous but there's always that one little bunch that ruins it for everybody else.

Hi Helen, yes, I do think I can find another worth group, our school is full of them!

Jane Marie, our property is 1.3 acres but my gardens are very healthy and the plants just love to grow here. I have to be careful though that I don't dig too much of something or it takes years to build up stock again.

wiseacre, it would have been nice to see you here. Thankfully we have lots and lots of repeat customers. I just came home today and found a note stuck in the door. Somebody was hoping I'd give her a call and let her know about this years sale.

Ben, sometimes this society really gets me down. It was so nice to have the sale in our beautiful garden but the thought of my family being punished financially is too much for me to gamble with. The same parent who made all the label suggestions also thought we should have the sale out in the middle of the black top parking lot. I asked her what she thought the plants would look like by the end of the day if it turns out to be hot and sunny. Nope, we'll have to carry them further and place them on the lawn.

Dave, I have no doubt that the day will come when you have enough plants to have a sale! You have a great touch with propagation and you'll have all kinds of things!

garden girl said...

Melanie, how good of you to work so hard with so little thanks. I can so relate to the parents who have all sorts of opinions but never lift a finger to help.

I wish I lived closer - I'd give you a hand with your sale, and I'd love to be able to buy some of your plants. And what bargains they are too.

I hope the plant sale is a resounding success. I'm sure it will be. I'm guessing you have folks who look forward to your plant sale every year.

Have a great time at the zoo.

María José said...

Oh Melanie, !what a hard and lovely work you do for the band!. It is really lovely!! I can understand how people is not able to say :thank you for your help!!
I hope everything will be OK!
Good luck and enjoy the day!!
My best regards.
María José

Anna said...

I knew everything you said already. A hand full of people do most of the work. They don't realize how your garden goes in to shock sometimes either. Some perennials need dividing but others don't bloom for awhile. You have given from your heart and now it's time to turn your talents to the leading end of education and help with the board.

They need someone like you on the school board. So don't feel like you are letting them down by ending the plant sale. You are just beginning to make your mark. You've been in the trenches girl---now it's time to be in the command center. Bravo to You!!!!! You've come through the ranks! You've got the right amount of grit to get it done.

Here's to the best plant sale ever!!!

Lin said...

I worked a lot with parent volunteers and while the majority were absolutely wonderful, there were always a few who were never happy (and usually complaining/whining was as much work as they were willing to do). You just have to ignore them and keep your goal in do it for the kids.

You're doing an incredible amount of work and I'm sure your sale will, once again, be a great success.

patientgardener said...

I was thinking cant you take cuttings of the Iberis? If you take them now they should be ready for next year's sale

Frances, said...

Saint Melanie is right! That is a lucky band group to have you and hopefully when you move on, parents of the younger members will be inspired by your generosity and come up with their own way of fundraising. Maybe you could find another worthwhile cause to devote the money to, one with willing helpers for all those chores like plant labeling. You give garden bloggers and gardeners all someone to be proud of. Not to mention the role model for your own kids. You are to be commended heartily, "For she's a jolly good fellow...."

Cinj said...

It is an incredible amount of work that you're doing. People who offer "helpful" advise SHOULD be willing to help. I probably wouldn't have the nerve to do it, but the thought crossed my mind that said you could give them the names of plants, allow them to google and get all the information they want about each plant and make the tags themselves. Maybe they'd see how much work was involved then. And those would-be donators? They should come to your yard and get a dividing lesson so they could go home and do their own work.

You're a wonderful giving lady and I don't think that these people really put a whole lot of thought into what they were saying.

Hope you're having fun at the zoo. Looks like I've got a lot of raking to do today!

Gail said...

Melanie, What a fabulous idea...and what an impressive amount of work. I have worked with parents who have ideas...all the ideas are for work they want someone else to do! They feel really good because they are being so helpful and creative but have no idea what they are asking the 'real working' parent to do!

The new band director is a real leader...he is lucky to have you,

thanks for answering my questions!


Kylee said...

Melanie, how on earth do you get your anemones to succeed so well? I can grow just about anything, but anemones have just died and died in my gardens. I can't figure out why! I love them so much.

chey said...

What a LUCKY band, and what a generous soul. Well done Melanie!