Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Back and beautiful: Amherst Garden Club’s popular plant sale ready for return

  • Carol Pope, Cynthia George and Wendy Larson repot plants in 2015 for the Garden Club of Amherst’s annual plant sale. After a pandemic-caused hiatus, the club’s plant sale will return to the Town Common on Saturday. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • After a pandemic-caused hiatus, the Amherst Garden Club’s plant sale will return to the Amherst Town Common on May 21. In this 2015 photo, Evelyn Villa, Wendy Quinones, and Barbara Hoadley were preparing plants for that year’s sale. Carol Lollis—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Amherst Garden Club will host its annual plant sale on the Amherst Town Common on Saturday, May 21. In this 2015 photo, Cynthia George repots plants. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, May 23, 2022

Among the many popular community events that COVID canceled over the past two years is the annual plant sale of the Garden Club of Amherst, a hallmark event that gardeners all over the Valley looked forward to. This year, with COVID less threatening than before, the club will hold the sale once again. It will take place on May 21 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the south end of the Amherst Town Common.

The annual sale of plants from members’ gardens began in 1951. Back then, plants were potted in cottage cheese containers and labeled with popsicle sticks. Now they are in large professional pots with printed labels that provide proper Latin botanical names and planting information.

Much else about the Garden Club of Amherst has changed since then. In 2008, men were first invited to join, a change that has been unanimously embraced. Members still gather once a month to hear lectures and presentations on horticultural topics. But sturdy gardening gloves have replaced dainty white party gloves. It’s definitely a dig-in-the-dirt organization, that maintains local public gardens including the North Amherst library garden and the 18th-century garden next to the Amherst Historical Society.

The garden club plant sale gives novice and experienced gardeners access to plants from some of the finest gardens in Amherst and beyond. Because the plants have thrived here, buyers can be assured that they are well-suited to local growing conditions. (Our USDA hardiness zone ranges from 5b to 6a in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties.) Garden club members at the sale are happy to provide planting and cultivation advice.

As a new member of the club, I came on board just in time to roll up my sleeves and grab a shovel in preparation for the coming plant sale. This has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of the extensive planning and labor that goes into such a major event.

Work begins months before the sale with the collection of pots and preparation of labels and promotional materials. Weeks before the sale, garden club members gather in each other’s gardens to carefully dig and divide plants, and pot them in a healthy mixture of compost and potting soil.

This can be arduous work, as I have learned. Anyone who has struggled to divide dense clumps of daylilies or other entrenched perennials appreciates the toil that goes into the process. A few days ago I assisted a fellow member in digging up a large, well-established clump of Rudbeckia “Henry Eilers,” an unusual variety of black-eyed Susan with narrow petals that grow in a cuplike pattern.

Henry, as I now think of the plant, came out of the ground easily enough, but dividing him into manageable pieces was another matter. Spades, pitchforks, even special Japanese garden knives proved unequal to the task. As I am learning, gardfen club members are indefatigable; a chainsaw was eventually deployed to tackle the problem.

Setting up the sale requires many skilled hands and strong backs. After all the digging and potting, the plants are carefully maintained at various members’ homes. Days before the sale, club members transport the hundreds of plants to the tent on the Amherst Town Common and arrange them on tables alphabetically and by sun or shade preference. New additions to the sale include starter boxes of greens and perennial plugs grown from seed.

Even before the sale officially opens, eager shoppers are likely to be lined up to get first dibs on their choice of plants. In addition to old favorites like Asarum (wild ginger), Hemerocallis (daylily) and phlox, the garden club sale offers many more unusual plants. These include spring ephemerals such as Trillium, Jeffersonia (twin leaf) and Mertensia (Virginia bluebells).

There will be a selection of native plants such as Asclepias (butterfly weed) and Echinacea “white swan” (coneflower), both prized by pollinators. Many shrubs will be available this year, including Lespedeza (bush clover), Clethra (summersweet) and Pieris. Japanese maples and Kousa dogwood will be on offer, too.

Proceeds from the Garden Club of Amherst’s sale underwrite many worthwhile causes, including an annual $1,000 scholarship for a UMass student. The club also donates to the Jones Library and its branches, as well as neighboring public libraries in members’ towns; and environmental groups including Kestrel Land Trust, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Nasami Farm of the New England Wildflower Association, and Durfee Conservatory and the Waugh Arboretum at UMass.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.