Last year’s Bethel Library Plant Sale. Photo by Donald G. Bennett

The nonprofit plant sales as we know them won’t be happening this year. Though some will move to an online format, the in-person events will be missed.

Not only are the sales a means of buying inexpensive perennials and shrubs that come, through plant division, from the gardens of neighbors, they are a social occasion. People gather and chat and talk about what they are growing.

Many such sales are sponsored by local garden clubs.

Suzanne Bushnell of Harpswell, who manages the calendar on the Garden Club Federation of Maine website in addition to being director of the New England Garden Clubs, said all sales she knows about have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A couple of clubs have told me they’re thinking of possibly having fall perennial sales,” Bushnell said. “But nothing is a sure thing at the moment.”

She said the Harpswell club where she is a member is planning to sell chrysanthemums in the fall.

Pamela Hargest is a UMaine Cooperative Extension educator who in past years has organized the Cumberland County Master Gardeners plant sale. That sale won’t be held this year. Hargest did say she knows of a couple of nonprofit groups organizing sales, but that most were canceled.

One exception: Patty Carton of Growing to Give in Brunswick said her group is doing its first sale this year.

“We operate a nonprofit, certified organic farm, and we grow vegetables using climate-friendly practices and donate them to local food pantries and other food access agencies,” she said.

But the sale will be online ordering at and pickup will be May 22 and 23.

Maine Audubon Society’s native plant sale at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, scheduled this year for June 13, is typically a keystone event for gardeners. In addition to the array of plants grown in Audubon’s greenhouse, the event features information tables for other nonprofit groups and speakers. The in-person part will be impossible this year, said Eric Topper, Audubon’s education director. The good news? Audubon has a lot of plants and will be selling them.

“We really boosted production for this year,” Topper said.

They bought 2,800 plugs (industry term for small seedlings), grew even more plants from seed, had many plants of five or six species that they started growing last year and never became developed enough to be sold until late last fall and are ready now. Although gardeners won’t be able to look at the plants in person, they can find out everything they need to know about them.

Topper said Audubon has just finished an online database that will allow people to ask about specific plants by “site conditions, size, bloom time and particular benefits to wildlife,” though it was not yet available to the public.

Topper said he thinks Audubon will not make as much money through online sales as it would from an in-person event. While the group will probably limit some of the special projects it does, the sale does not provide money to pay staff, so the loss of income won’t threaten Maine Audubon’s existence.

Bushnell said most garden clubs used the plant-sale profits to provide scholarships and do other civic projects, so the scholarships might be less and the projects, smaller.

So, what should gardeners do?

For starters, they should take advantage of the online sales that are taking place. That will help local nonprofit groups.

Shop locally. The same kind of plants that would have been available at the nonprofit groups’ sales will be available at locally owned nurseries, farm stands and farmers markets. Yes, they will cost more, but for those of you whose income has not been harmed by the epidemic, think of all the money you are saving by not going to movies, eating at restaurants or seeing plays and concerts. You can spend a bit of that savings by paying more for plants and helping your local businesses.

Everyone is working on gardens now. At this time, a major task is to remove or divide plants that are crowding each other. That task results in plants that might be offered at a plant sale.

Instead, leave them at the end of your driveway (if it is safe to stop there), in pots if possible, with labels providing the name of the plant and color of the flower. Say they are free for the taking. If you want to be super thoughtful, you might add to the label whether or not the plant needs sun or what its growth habits are.

People do it with ratty sofas and armchairs. Why not something as potentially beautiful as flowering plants?

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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