Plants get a second chance

By Lise Funderburg

The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 9, 2006

A gardener who laments buying too much in the spring finds redemption in her annual plant sale.

For most local gardeners, late spring signals a full release from winter’s purgatory. In comes the daily ritual of watching for the first peony, the first rose, the first hovering hummingbird.

For me, after seven years of gardening — much of it marked by a neophyte’s craving for every new plant I came across — the season just lays out evidence of chronic overpurchasing. Some plants have died; many flourished. I have a bleeding heart that now attains the size of a small apartment building each May and then drops seeds that go forth and multiply.

Turns out plant-care tags and reference books aren’t lying when they describe “mature height” and “spread.” Turns out gardening is not the place to accept things at face value: Things grow.

Now that everything has filled in and spread with abandon, I have what is called an excess of plant material. I’ve also started to understand the power of swathing and massing, the impact of a stand versus a mishmash.

As a result, I’ve been forced to create my own vernal ritual: the Divide and Conquer Plant Sale. In a daylong extravaganza of reusing, recycling, and neighborly jawing, I get rid of a shocking number of plants without making a dent in my garden.

This year’s sale is set for tomorrow.

Last year, I spent early spring rummaging through my garden for excess seedlings and overgrown plants I could uproot or divide. I planted the extras (and a smidge of rooting hormone) into the embarrassing stockpile of plastic nursery pots I had somehow accumulated. For weeks on end, I’d have daily potting sessions, using dirt from the yard after sifting out weeds, especially goutweed’s stealthy runner roots and Star of Bethlehem’s dreaded cluster-bomb bulblets. I finished with a trowel scoop of organic fertilizer, and annexed another foot or two of my driveway’s macadam.

When I ran out of containers, I combed my Mount Airy neighborhood on trash day. Each week, I’d find a mother lode of pots and trays. From my local food co-op, I took discarded plastic fish boxes and drilled out drainage holes, making them into flats for sweet woodruff and lamium and sedum.

I enlisted my 81-year-old gardening-savvy mother as general factotum, offering her a gross-profit-based bonus (known to her generation as “pin-money”). She pruned back the sorrier specimens I’d collected, widened the aisles I’d made through the rows of plant pots, occasionally made comparisons to Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, and tagged and priced my inventory, which, on the eve of the sale, exceeded 700 plants.

Since the average per-plant price was a dollar, wealth was not the goal. I just couldn’t stand the thought of tossing baby hellebores and clumps of monkey grass into the trash, as some gardeners I know do. I still can’t get over the fact that anything I’ve planted comes back each year, much less spawns.

On sale day, I set my mother up with a chair, a change-stocked money apron, several reference books, and a cup of coffee. There was no chance for pre-sale jitters: My friend Margie ambled up the driveway two hours before start time.

“I’ll take everything,” she said. She wasn’t kidding.

We compromised: I sold her all the black-eyed Susan, miscanthus, and bee balm, and promised that if she came back in the afternoon, she’d get a deeply discounted track at what was left.

Others came up the driveway in trickles, then in steady streams. By late morning, my mother and I were juggling four customers each, when we weren’t trying to sneak in chats with old friends and neighbors, or doling out advice.

“That’s a spreader,” I’d warn anyone eyeing the tricolor houttuynia. “And by that, I mean invasive.”

About an hour into the sale, I worried that I didn’t have enough pizzazz. The large and showy plants were gone; what remained was just, well, green. I needed a little Vegas, a little Liza Minnelli. I went into the garden with a shovel, digging up hosta “Moonglow,” blue creeping phlox, and Brunnera. These went like hotcakes.

The vice president of the local cactus and succulent society bought up the more unusual sedum; a rabbinical student asked if she could rent the biggest hosta for her graduation party.

I closed up about 4 o’clock, even though 100 plants — the sorrier specimens, to be sure — remained. My mother added my wad of small bills to hers and went inside to count. She came back looking stunned: We’d pulled in $623.

The money was icing on the cake, although if I were to cut back on mulch and adhere to my new swathing plans, it might just about match my spending for one gardening season.

What mattered more was that I’d made use of something I could no longer use, that I’d found homes for plants that have given me great pleasure, and that I’d filled those spring days with the best kind of sowing and reaping.

If You Go

Lise Funderburg’s third Divide and Conquer Plant Sale is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Mount Airy. Rain date is Sunday.