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Plant sale tips

So you want to have a plant sale

Some of you may be familiar with Tony Avent's So you want to start a nursery, a practical yet entertaining book on what it takes to jump into the business of selling plants. While I've read the book, I doubt I'll ever take that big of a leap. But I do sell plants, at a rather less than breadwinning scale: at my annual spring plant sale, soon into its tenth edition.

Amateur plant sales are something of a time-honored tradition among the gardening crowd, and they come in many flavors. Through the years, I've received plenty of requests for information and tips from fellow amateur salespeople (women actually - my gender is in the minority here). Enough that I figure putting it into web page form might be a good idea. So here goes.

The basics

Why sell plants?

Good question! Since you most likely won't get rich from one-off plant sales, there must be other reasons. Many plant sales are held to benefit a worthy cause, often a community organization. Besides generating money for the organization, a sale may also contribute to the cause by raising awareness and good will. My cause (finding an excuse and the means to buy more plants) isn't quite so lofty. But I like to think that by providing a source of plants, many of them unusual, I'm doing my fellow local gardeners a service. And I've met many garden enthusiasts through my sale with whom my path might otherwise never have crossed.

A very practical reason to sell plants is that you have more of them than you know what to do with. Even though the compost pile is ideally suited to handle such inconveniences, gardeners tend to be bleeding-heart liberals who can't bear to inflict the death penalty on deserving (if somewhat free-growing) plants.

When to sell

Ha! When can you find the time? Preparing for a plant sale is amazingly time-consuming, so consider your own time constraints first. Family vacations, business trips, and other events have a knack for getting in the way. The sweet spot for plant sales, at least in this area, is probably May-June. Much earlier, and too many plants haven't gotten their act together yet; much later, and the task of keeping hundreds of potted-up plants alive through hot weather will become daunting indeed. Besides, May and June are when most home gardeners are on the lookout for additions to their landscape.

My sale dates have ranged from April 22nd to May 12th. By late April, most perennials are up, but very few are in bloom yet. Although I've managed to sell a few pots of plants that have barely broken ground (butterfly weed, balloonflowers, joe pye weed), most customers don't have quite so much faith in me, and prefer to see a thriving plant. Needless to say, it's very hard to sell hardy hibiscus, indigo, or bush clover at this time - or even in early May.

Wait just a week or two, till the first week in May, and quite a few more plants are in flower: cowslips, sweet woodruff, bugleweed are just a few that come to mind. If the weather has been warm, there may even be some columbine blooms.

As for time of day - gardeners are early risers. My sales start at 8am, and customers start arriving at 7:45. By 11am, the tables are looking rather empty. Although the sale officially goes till 3pm, it's rare for anyone to show up after 1pm (they have to find me out in the back yard if they do!).

Where to sell

Assuming the sale is at your own home, you may not have many options for staging your sale. The driveway and front yard are certainly the most visible from the road, to attract would-be customers who just happen to drive by. But an exposed outdoor location puts you at the whim of the weather - not just rain (many gardeners are hardy folk, and will brave some wet to get their plant fixes), but also wind, which can wreak havoc on your top-heavy plants, signs, and labels.

Another consideration is security: if you're selling lots of plants, you will not be able to stage them all on the morning of the sale (I take the day before the sale off from work, to get the job done). Depending on your neighborhood, having all of the fruits of your hard labor sitting outside and accessible through the night may not feel like a good idea.

For these two reasons, I have always staged my sale in our family garage. That involves clearing the amazing amount of junk that collects through the year (vehicles are never observed in our garage), to create a wide open space. Over time, I've gathered up a good number of tables and benches on which to stage the plants - as my plant count has grown, the aisles between the tables have gotten narrower and narrower - but I don't think I'll ever get more than four rows of tables into the two-car garage, so there's a natural limit. Only the biggest plants (typically, larger trees and shrubs) are displayed outside.

Although I've generally been lucky with the weather, the one year that it rained didn't really hurt the sale at all. Be sure to provide bright lighting, especially important if the day is gloomy. I keep a couple of 120W light bulbs on hand, to replace the wimpier bulbs that normally light up our garage - and I install an additional shop light in the part of the garage where daylight penetrates least.

What to sell

Know your customers! Now that my sale has gained some notoriety through years of inter-gardener gossip, it draws a different crowd than it did in the early days, when few of the plants I sold left the neighborhood. With a larger number of serious gardeners (and I use that word lightly) finding their way over, I've been able to expand my plant pallette beyond the tried and true - which I find quite gratifying.

But make no mistake - the tried and true are great plants, and will always sell - especially if they happen to be in bloom during the sale! Given the time of year, I'll always sell plenty of sweet woodruff, creeping phlox, cowslips, hosta (which always look good), and as many hellebores as I can lay my hands on. Other colorful and popular stand-bys, even if they aren't in bloom at the time, do well as well.

For some reason, I've never had much luck selling woody plants. Sure, the four-year-old redbud in glorious bloom sold swiftly (I had to suppress a bit of a brawl over that one), but many other deserving shrubs and small trees don't get much attention. Ornamental grasses, also, aren't the best sellers. Especially warm-season grasses don't look like much yet by mid-spring. Still, I offer some woodies and grasses for sale every year, and sell perhaps half of them.

In the early years of my plant sale, many of my offerings were first-year perennials, grown from seed in the winter months. Although they attain a fair size by May, they don't have the bulk and robustness of a second-year plant. I found they sold poorly, and have since moved to overwintering most of my perennial seedlings, digging them up for sale in their second year. Only a few types of perennials, those that grow fast enough to have a full look and will flower in their first year, are still featured at times on my sale tables.

How about annuals? Besides a few one-off selections, I don't sell them. I find that the effort to grow an annual plant is the same as growing a perennial - but you buy annuals by the sixpack or tray at Walmart, it's hard to compete with that.

The details (remember, that's where the devil is)

Preparing for the sale

In the past seven years, my sale has gotten bigger and bigger - I would never been able to keep up if I hadn't gotten ever more efficient in my methods for preparing plants for sale. I'll tell you what works for me - you may find that it's different for you (feel free to leave a comment below, so others can learn from your experience, too).

I guess you could say that my preparations for the sale start during my seed-starting operation in winter. But to me, that doesn't really count - most of my seedlings will go into our own garden, the extras are just a bonus. So for me, the plant sale season starts in earnest in early April, when I start collecting plants out of the garden. Not many plants are up by then, but it's good to start early, since there's so much work ahead. Plants that can be potted up at this time include succulents such as sedums, many semi-evergreen perennials, and the early-rising perennial crowd. I've learned to segregate the late-rising plants from others in my nursery beds, so there's less risk of damaging them when digging up their early-unfurling neighbors.

The thing with early spring is - not all garden supplies are easy to come by yet. Stores may not stock big bags of potting soil until later in spring, for example. So a little planning, at the end of the previous gardening season, comes in handy. I make sure to have a compressed bale of peat moss and a good heap of county compost lined up by autumn, ready for service as soon as the season starts. Similarly, I collect pots all summer so I have a full selection come springtime. Nothing slows the process of potting up more than a lack of soil mix or not having the right size pots.

Potting 'm up

For a loose, water-retentive potting soil, I mix about one part peat moss to three parts compost, usually into my trusty wheelbarrow, which I cart around the garden with a stash of pots of various sizes - ready to pot any plant that looks like a candidate for the sale.

I collect the plants from all around the garden. Most of them come right out of the nursery area of our orchard zone, but many others are last year's stray seedlings that pop up in our lovingly (un)tended perennial borders. And then there are the plants that keep on giving, growing enough for several nice-sized divisions every year: these include Siberian irises, some daylilies, perennial coreopsis and helianthus species, and hostas.

Be aware that you'll need a place to stash all these plants as you're potting them up. I used to designate a corner of the yard near the garage for this purpose, but changed a few years ago to a section at the back of the yard near our compost piles. While it means more work carting them all across the whole yard the day before the sale, I don't wind up killing a good stretch of lawn (or having to move the pots around every few days to avoid premature grass death). When I can no longer reach the compost piles, and have filled all adjacent areas and paths with potted plants, I know the sale date must be near!

Advertising and marketing

There are many ways to announce your plant sale to your fellow gardeners – I've used most of them through the years! Low-tech, and still quite effective, are hand-written poster signs posted at strategic locations throughout our extended neighborhood. Don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to make these; you'll have to buy posterboard about four times larger than what seems about right in the store, if you want passing cars to have a shot at reading your announcement. I post them several days before the sale (and of course make sure to remove them promptly after the event).

Another approach that works well for me is advertising through the bulletin boards and monthly classifieds pages at my work; similar methods (which I haven't used) would be posting on bulletin boards at grocery stores, the post office, etc.

A step up the technology ladder is a classified ad in the newspaper. I did this for several years. The ads were a bit pricey, but probably helped me establish a customer base in the early years. Nowadays, I don't bother: enough people know about my sale through other channels.

And of course there is this website! When first I established the site four years ago, its intent was to serve as an announcement and advertising platform for my sale (hence the name). It soon grew to be much more of an informational and personal website, in which the few sale-related pages are almost an afterthought - but it is still a useful stage to alert Googling passers-by about the sale, and inform repeat customers about the particulars of this year's event. Every year, many come armed with print-outs of my plants-for-sale list, with their wants checked off.

The website also helps to keep adding to my email mailing list; through the year, many people request to be added to the list. I send out a reminder email about three weeks before the sale, and can always be assured that I'll see a good number of familiar faces on sale day. Even though we see each other just once a year, the mailing list helps to keep the acquaintance going. This would work even without a website - keeping a guest list, or handing out business cards with email address, could serve the same purpose. I've tried,' but find myself too busy on the day of the sale to follow through with my good intentions.

All of the above was about advertising the sale – but you must also market the plants! If you want to make sure your favorite plant is not sold, just neglect to put a label or description with it: nobody will touch the plant. I've learned, and relearned, and continue to learn my lesson: don't offer plants for sale without a sign that describes the plant and its cultural needs. Ideally, the sign should have a nice picture - especially for plants that are far removed from blooming on the sale date. Making photo signs takes time (especially if you don't have your own photos, and must go hunting for suitable pictures on the web), so I can't hope to have them for all offerings. I make some new ones every year, so that by now I have a nice collection of them. But even if you don't have a photo sign, make sure to have a text sign - even an index-card, hand-written with a sharpie marker, stating size, sun or shade, flower color, and any other noteworthy feature goes a long way. I never have all of the signs made by the time the sale opens, so I use stray moments of low activity through the morning to create missing ones.

Staging the plants

If you have several tables, it makes sense to group plants according to their cultural needs. Many customers inquire about plants for sun or shade, and I'm glad to be able to point at a couple of tables, rather than hunt them down from individual tables. You'll learn which parts of your sale area are popular, and which tend to get overlooked. This will be consistent from year to year, so you may as well take advantage of it by placing your plants accordingly. Also, during the sale I try to move plants to popular spots after the original tenants of those spots are sold.

Pricing your babies

Ah, now that's a tricky question! If the proceeds of your sale go to a good cause, you can apply about the same pricing as local nurseries - part of what you're selling is good will. But in the absence of other motives, it sure doesn't hurt if your customers know they'll find bargains when they visit your sale. After all the potting up and preparing, I'd just as soon sell most of the plants and save myself the effort of planting lots of leftovers back in our garden. So I price to sell!

Are my plants guaranteed to be the cheapest deal around? Unlikely - mass merchandisers sell some of their common stock pretty darn cheaply, perhaps as low as $2 for a small perennial. But they don't carry the more interesting species, which you'll pay upwards of $6 for at a bona fide nursery. So I split the difference, and sell perennials at prices anywhere from $1.50 to $5 - most of them, around $2.50 to $3. I could probably price a little higher without losing much business, but that's OK. If I were looking for a more profitable way to spend all the hours I devote to the plant sale, I'd probably be better off working in Walmart's garden department!

When you've got hundreds of plants to price, you don't want to write the dollar price of each individually. Use a color-code system to indicate prices. Every year, I make sure to have a good stash of adhesive color-dots, in at least six colors (this usually involves buying two different packages, with different color selections. Make a few color-price keys to post around the sale area, and all that's left to do is stick a dot on each pot. Don't be surprised if it still takes hours to do that - nothing ever goes as fast as you think it should.

Have a great sale!

Even for me, as I'm writing this in November, with the next sale still far away, the event and all its preparation seems daunting. But there's a lot of satisfaction in sharing my plants with fellow gardeners, and making some money to feed my own plant addiction. There will come a day when I'll reclaim my spring, to have more time to enjoy the garden in all its early glory - but I think I still have some sales ahead of me. If you're planning one of your own, I hope you'll find my tips on planning and preparing for your sale helpful. As for the sale day itself: it will fly! In the flurry of activity, you may not remember which plants you sold, and to whom - but you can be sure that many of your home-grown plants will soon shine in gardens all around. And that ain't bad!

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