Oregon State University: Rev up for gardening season with a plant sale

For gardeners spring really kicks in when the plant sales start. For two years, Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener Association plant sales stalled because of COVID-19. As they reappear, shoppers are happily planning their annual haul.

The sales are held statewide, with 19 counties holding an event this year, according to LeAnn Locher, OSU Extension Master Gardener outreach coordinator. Check the Master Gardener website for a sale near you. A few will be held April 30, including in Clackamas and Lane counties. Most come during May and a few the first weekend in June.

Locher noted that some of the sales will include special tags to identify plants as one of the Top 10 Oregon native plants for pollinators as determined by a study performed by the Garden Ecology Lab, a research unit led by Gail Langellotto, Master Gardener statewide coordinator and professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Those will be just some of the tens of thousands of plants for sale, which include annuals, vegetables, herbs, perennials and, at a few sales, shrubs and trees. Because of their popularity, native plants are making a significant appearance, as are vegetables.

“At our last sale, we got the message that native plants are in demand,” said Kathy Clark, sale coordinator in Benton County. “What we had went very quickly. This year we increased our offerings to 1,500 native plants of 80 different species. They’ll go fast.”

Clark, who has been involved in the plant sales for 12 years, and her crew of volunteers have grown 8,000 plants – including 4,000-4,500 edibles – for the sale. Though annuals and vegetables can be grown in one season, shrubs, trees and some perennials take two to three years to grow into a saleable size.

“We want it to be ready to be planted rather than a twig,” Clark said. “We want people to be successful. We’re focused on helping people find the right plant for the right place. Have you got a meadow? We’ve got a plant for that. Are you concerned about deer or have a wet spot? We’ve got what you need.”

Some of the sales specialize in plants that grow well for their climate, particularly perennially popular tomatoes. In Tillamook County volunteers have produced 700 tomatoes, as well 1,000 additional annuals and vegetables.

“We get all kinds of weather so tomatoes have to be pretty hardy,” Ostermiller said. “We carry varieties that are good for our area. They’re so popular, they sold out in 40 minutes in 2019.”

In central Oregon, Master Gardeners grew 1,500 plants, including four varieties of tomatoes, according to sale coordinator Vickie Kemp. Along with the tomatoes, they also grew many more vegetables, annuals and a few perennials. Some of the offerings are All-America Selections winners.

Umatilla County volunteers grew 100 varieties of tomatoes, many unusual, said Amanda Woodlee, OSU Extension Master Gardener coordinator in the county. Woodlee said there will be a lot more vegetable starts and a bunch of bearded irises for sale this year, as well as houseplants and larger fruits like figs and grapes.

Vendors will be on hand at some sales, including Tillamook County and central Oregon, where they’ll also have a garden-themed garage sale.

Many of the sales were held online last year and some, like Tillamook County, will do a hybrid version this year. Check out the sale in your county to see if they have online shopping options.

To help shoppers, the central Oregon group includes a card with instructions for hardening off their plants, which have been transplanted into 3-inch pots and need to be acclimatized for outdoor temperatures. At the Benton County sale, large tags in each block of plants show a photo of the plant to make selection easier.

Master Gardener associations, which produce the sales, use their fund-raising dollars to support the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program’s mission to advance outreach and education. Associations across the state provide financial assistance to establish and maintain educational gardens, provide scholarships and cover expenses for outreach efforts.

“We are grateful for the enthusiastic support of the Master Gardener association,” Locher said. “There is no way we could reach as many people or have such an impact on food system resiliency and the well-being of people and the environment without their support.”

The sales are exciting for gardeners and for the Master Gardeners who volunteer, Locher said. Everyone is happy the sales are back. Some shoppers are so excited they showed up at a work party in Tillamook County a few weeks early.

“They’d heard about it on the radio and got the dates mixed up,” said Sarah Ostermiller, who heads up the Tillamook sale. “They’re ready for it. We know the pandemic had some people pick up gardening in their life. We’re interested in whether it will continue. We’ll find out.”

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