Since 1969, the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale has served as a harbinger of spring and an invitation to novice, seasoned and would-be gardeners alike to start planting. Throughout the year, volunteers gather weekly to prepare to offer a stunning array of plants and share their passion and best tips for gardening.
Nestled inside a busily humming potting shed alongside a dozen fellow gardeners, Mary Phillips sprinkles milkweed seeds into the cells of a seedling tray, making sure each is placed perfectly inside its designated space. She takes joy in this simple task, which will produce a bounty of beauty for landscapes and a welcome habitat for butterflies come summer.
“These are plants that can’t be found everywhere,” said Phillips, who is one of more than 400 volunteers who donate their time and expertise to the Spring Plant Sale . “Milkweed is the only plant that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on because it’s the only plant their caterpillars can eat.”
Expert advice from seasoned gardeners is a big part of the reason the annual sale has attracted droves of locals for five decades. With volunteers representing a dozen growing groups poised to share their knowledge, the 50th anniversary sale is set to offer more than 100,000 plants selected specifically for Birmingham and the surrounding region.
“Everything that our group produces is native to the Southeast,” said Gail Snyder, leader of the native plant group. “We’re trying to promote native cultivars that are well-suited to our climate. I don’t think there’s anything that our group sells that we don’t also grow at home, so we can talk about it at the sale and share tips related to a variety of growing conditions.”
Debuted in 1969 by the Women’s Auxiliary – precursor of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens – the Spring Plant Sale was originally called “Fiesta.” Its premise has always been simple: to serve as a celebration of plants. The first sale was hosted under five large tents at the gardens and raised $4,500, which helped fund the Garden Center.
As the Fiesta grew, it moved off-site and became the Spring Plant Sale. In recent years, the event has grossed more than $250,000 to benefit the ongoing stewardship and enhancement of the gardens, educational programs and outreach activities. 2019 marks the sale’s fifth year at Brookwood Village. Today, the Friends also host a Fall Plant Sale at the gardens.
For volunteers in all 12 growing groups, preparing for the nonprofit’s largest plant sale fundraiser requires careful calculation to ensure that the hundreds of varieties of vegetables, perennials, annuals, flowers, herbs, trees and more are ready when they need to be. It’s also a labor of love.
“I remember my first Spring Plant Sale: 2008,” said Mike Rushing. “I had just graduated the Alabama master gardener class of 2007 and was pleased to be accepted to the trees and shrubs growing Group. (Lead volunteer) Jeanie Sherlock pointed me to 400 (1-gallon) native azaleas, told me to organize them by species, and see what I could do about selling them. She remains one of my all-time favorite characters, despite assigning me, and only me, the overwhelming job of moving so many pots of naked, bare stems.
“Luckily, the azaleas sold themselves and Jeanie allowed me to ‘stretch my legs’ at the next sale,” Rushing said. “She and her crew continue to challenge me. The tree and shrub co-workers keep me coming back, spring and fall, to the great BBG plant sales.”
Chris Boles began volunteering with the herbs growing group, or “Herb Army,” in 2000 as part of her service commitment for the Alabama master gardener program.
“I walked into the potting shed one day and was greeted by a couple of women who asked if I would like to help them move some herbs from small containers to larger ones in preparation for the spring Fiesta,” Boles said. “I was immediately hooked on the individuals who made up the group. Gardeners are the best. I have volunteered here just about every Wednesday since that time.”
For Boles, the sale also means a lot to the Birmingham community.
“I find that people are always looking for unique plants that cannot be found just anywhere, and they come to this sale to find those special plants,” she said. “We spend time each year listening to what our customers are looking for, and we try to grow items that are often new to us, so we can have them available at the next sale. We see a lot of the same customers each year, and they like to tell the story of the plants they bought in prior years and how they did or did not perform. The Herb Army also grows the new plants suggested by our customers in our own gardens, and then we compare notes to see what worked, what failed and what we would like to try again. I believe the main value of the sale is that it introduces so many people to the love of gardening and educates them about plants that work well in our area, which in turn helps make our landscapes more valuable to the rest of nature.”
“The passion of our volunteers is infectious,” said Tom Underwood, executive director of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “They are at the same time educators, learners and advocates, and their enthusiasm shows that there is really no such thing as a nonplant person. Gardening connects us with one another, and with the Earth.”
For volunteers like Phillips, the connection extends to even the tiniest of plantings. As she transfers a tray of milkweed into the nearby greenhouse, Phillips sings “You Are So Beautiful” to the seedlings.
“You have to be happy with your seeds so they’ll germinate,” she said with a smile. “It’s kind of like with your pets – they respond to your kindness.”
This story originally appeared in The Garden Dirt.