I’m a big fan of native plant sales and find it difficult to pass one by. As a native plant enthusiast, I’m always looking for additions to my collection, not to mention the fact I like to encourage these brief enterprises to succeed. These fund-raising events are generally held by well-meaning organizations concerned about conservation and sustainability, so I know a few of my dollars are going to a good cause. (Okay, more than a few!)

Native plant sale

Plant sales often benefit worthy organizations, like this one at the American Horticultural Society’s headquarters in Virginia.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Boodroot

Beautiful Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) is a lovely addition to many native plant gardens.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Spigelia marilandica

Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) is one of the rare beauties you may be able to find at a native plant sale.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Dodecatheon meadia

Endangered in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania, easy-to-grow Dodecatheon meadia offers a stunning spring display of “shooting stars.”

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

The problem for many native plant shoppers is that they typically don’t know much about these lovely selections, so the plants subsequently have a high failure rate. This can actually discourage the conservation movement and leave people with the impression that native plants aren’t as simple as they’re cracked up to be. So if you’re planning to attend one of these worthy fund-raising sales this season, here are a few tips that will help you have some fun – and some success:

  • Do your homework first. Whether a small or large event, organizers almost always post a list of species for sale. A general shortcoming of many Websites, when it comes to natives, is scanty information about their habitat and even less about garden culture. My advice: Learn about the plants before you buy any, so you can make sure you’ll be able to meet the plants’ cultural requirements in your own garden.
  • If you don’t know what’s for sale before you go, ask about the plants when you get there. Most often plant labels will simply read “sun,” “part shade” or “shade” – but these terms can mean a lot of things. Issues relating to light requirements are tricky, and many natives are fussy about how much sun they get, including at what time of day they like it.
  • Realize that even though you ask about a plant, you aren’t always likely to get complete expert advice from the folks at the sale. Many of these events are staffed by enthusiastic volunteers with limited knowledge. Even if there’s a real sharp gardener among them, they’re likely to be overwhelmed with the activity and not be able to give you a detailed consultation. (That said, still ask questions and gather as much info as you can on the plants you’re interested in!)
  • Understand that there’s a good probability that the plants just got off a long truck ride from somewhere and are under very high stress. Natives usually don’t like changes in habitat, and considering the fact they’ve come from a perfectly comfy hoop house where they’ve been well-cared-for, they might not look so hot and will need some care quickly.
  • When you can, buy bigger. The smaller the pot, the more likely the plant is in need of TLC. If you can’t buy larger (which is entirely possible since many sales offer plants in plug flats), be sure to take care of the plant as soon as you get home. You many be tempted to rescue the little beauty for a couple of dollars, stick it in the trunk of your car and let it sit on the porch while you have supper, but don’t. It’s a better idea to give your plant a cool drink of water and let it collect its senses in some quiet shade before relatively quickly letting it “unwind” in a corner of your garden.
  • Be understanding. You may notice that the selections at a plant sale sometimes defy logic, but there are reasons behind what’s available. Somewhere there was a committee charged with the task of offering as wide a range of natives as possible. The group had to choose from a continually shifting availability list from wholesalers and work with a budget guarded by an anxious group treasurer. Figuring out all the details is difficult at best.
  • Know that plant sales can get a little crazy. Conventional garden centers can carry inventory for weeks – even months – but the folks running a weekend sale have to clear the table as best as they can in a matter of hours. What they can’t sell goes home with someone from the event to be tended over the summer months and offered again in fall. If you’re unhappy with the sale’s selection, volunteer to join up and help plan the next event.
  • Arrive early. If you’ve done your homework, you’ve got your list, your plan of action, and you know when the sale opens – now adjust your schedule for it. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm – or in this case, the best selection and least-stressed plants. So this season, shop enthusiastically, get those plants home – and enjoy!