How volunteers power the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens 50th Anniversary Spring Plant Sale on April 12-14

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Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Spring Plant Sale, volunteer
Betty Anderson, a Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens volunteer, tends to plants destined for the Spring Plant Sale. Photo submitted

When the big white tent goes up at Brookwood Village, it means one thing. Time for the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale. Find out how 400 volunteers bring this plant extravaganza together, plus why the Preview Sale on April 11 is a hot ticket.

Alabama, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, volunteer, Dunn Formal Rose Garden, Trey Hoffman
Trey Hoffman at the Dunn Formal Rose Garden. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

I caught up with Trey Hoffman in the Dunn Formal Rose Garden of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on a sunny Tuesday. He was there on break from his job as director of customer success at Fleetio, a Birmingham tech startup. The company encourages employees to volunteer for causes they are passionate about, and Hoffman’s passion is roses.

Hoffman could talk for hours about how to grow them. And soon he’ll have the opportunity to share his knowledge when he works the sales table at the Friends’ annual public Spring Plant Sale on April 12-14.

Alabama, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Spring Plant Sale, Brookwood Village
It’s a plant lover’s dream! Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Tip: Want first dibs at the Spring Plant Sale? Two early shopping opportunities happen Thursday evening, April 11. The Preview Party will take place 5:30–7 p.m. ($45 in advance or $50 at the door). Become a member of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens to attend the Members-Only Sale 6:30–8 p.m.

50-Year Tradition

Orchids at the Spring Plant Sale. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens has hosted the Spring Plant Sale since 1969, and it’s grown into a major fundraiser. Proceeds benefit the ongoing stewardship and enhancement of the Gardens, educational programs and outreach activities.

That said, putting on a sale with 100,000 plants and welcoming 7,000 customers is not an easy feat. Here’s how volunteer power brings it all together, starting with buying and growing plants. If you’d like to join these volunteer efforts, sign up here.

Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Spring Plant Sale, volunteer
Volunteer Gwendolyn Griffin moves plants for the sale. Photo submitted

Stocking Up for the Sale

Volunteers and Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens use two methods to stock up for the Spring Plant Sale: buying and growing.

Procuring Plants

Peruse 80 varieties of roses at the Spring Plant Sale … as long as you get there before they start selling out. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Roses, for example, require lots of love and care as they mature. So the Birmingham Rose Society, which tends to the Dunn Formal Rose Garden, customizes their wholesale orders to include popular varieties and those that grow best in our climate. They choose about 80 kinds of roses from a catalog of 200 and arrange for payment and delivery.

“We choose roses we think are best suited to be sold to the general public, but also some varieties that you won’t find at big box stores.”

Trey Hoffman, Birmingham Rose Society
Alabama, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, volunteer, Dunn Formal Rose Garden, Trey Hoffman
Hoffman tending to the Dunn Formal Rose Garden. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

This year’s rose selection will include Earth-Kind Roses, which combine pest tolerance with landscape performance, and Kordes roses, which are a German hybridizer. Find the preliminary list of roses that will be at the sale here. Tip: the ones that sell out the fastest are the climbers, miniature roses and Lady Banks, according to Hoffman.

Growing Plants

Gwendolyn Griffin in the lath houses. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

After my conversation with Hoffman, I headed to the shady lath houses where another group of volunteers works to cultivate plants native to the Southeast for the Spring Plant Sale. There I found Gwendolyn Griffin busily counting plants for the sale.

Griffin is not only a volunteer but also a professional gardener, a backpacker and an overall nature enthusiast. She volunteers at the Gardens because she wants to encourage people to plant more natives, which are beneficial to butterflies, bees and birds.

Alabama, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, volunteer, Gwendolyn Griffin
Gwendolyn Griffin counting plants in the lath house. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

“A lot of modern landscaping uses cultivars from other countries. That’s fine but it doesn’t fit into our ecosystem. So our mission is to help get Southeastern natives into homeowner yards.”

Gwendolyn Griffin, native plant consultant and gardener

The volunteer groups who cultivate plants, including natives, perennials and herbs, tend to every stage of their development, progressively repotting them into bigger containers as they grow. If this fact doesn’t amaze you, get back to me after you get a glimpse of that big white tent filled with hundreds of varieties of plants.

Birmingham Botanical Gardens, trillium
Trillium is a prized plant in a native garden. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

While I was visiting, Griffin had a tip for me:

“If you’re going to come to the plant sale, you need to join the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and come to the Members-Only Sale,  or purchase tickets to the Preview Party, because that’s when you’re going to get the best selection.”

Setting Up for the Big Day

Stocking up on plants is only the beginning. All these other steps have to happen, too.

Birmingham Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale
Volunteers load the trucks to take plants to Brookwood Village. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Pricing and Signage

Volunteers do all the pricing for the Spring Plant Sale, as well as signage so people know what they’re buying. For the roses, for example:

“We create our own signage that has the category (a hybrid tea rose, a landscape rose or shrub), a picture of the rose and a starred rating system for fragrance, color and disease resistance. It can be kind of intimidating to see 80 different types of roses, so we try to make it easy.”

Trey Hoffman, Birmingham Rose Society

Loading, Unloading and Staging

Shelves act as a makeshift stockroom to resupply the sales tables. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Volunteers shuttle plants from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens growing areas to the tent set up in the parking lot of Brookwood Village. Then they must stage the plants on the tables, organizing them by sun versus shade plants and placing them behind the right signage.

Because there’s only so much room on the tables, a backlog of plants are placed below the tables and on shelves. This enables volunteers to quickly restock during the sale.

Watering

Over the course of the three-day sale, the plants need water. How exactly do they manage that? Easy, sort of.

“We fill giant trash cans with water and use watering cans.”

Gwendolyn Griffin, native plant consultant and gardener

During the Sale

There might be a line at the plant sale, but it will move fast. The volunteers inside run things like a well-oiled machine. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Plant Experts on Hand

You don’t have to be a plant expert to volunteer at the Gardens—in fact, volunteering is a great way to learn. But during the Spring Plant Sale, many of those manning the tables are experts in their plant categories, and a large number have also trained under the Jefferson County Master Gardener program.

They can give you advice on how to care for a plant and where it grows best, or help you find something specific.

“If someone wants say, a white rose that can go on a hedge, or a showcase rose, we can point them in the right direction. A lot of times we’ve grown a number of the roses ourselves.”

Trey Hoffman, Birmingham Rose Society

All those plant experts under one tent is fun for them, too. When he’s not manning the rose tables, he enjoys chatting with the tree and shrub  and fern teams. Or, he might drop by the vegetable area to see how fast the ghost pepper plants are selling out this year.

If you’re lucky, Birmingham’s resident Japanese maple expert David Doggett can tell you about this tree. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Instagram

Counters, Cashiers and Car Loaders

After you’ve perused, chatted and selected your purchases at the Spring Plant Sale, a new group of volunteers awaits you as you approach the tent exit. One will tally your purchases, while another will cash you out. Then go get your car and drive around to the pickup area, where volunteers from local high schools will load your car.

And that is how 400 volunteers make the annual Spring Plant Sale happen. When I think about how seamlessly all of this comes together, it’s like hearing an orchestra play a symphony.

Once you get home, don’t forget to brag on social media about your finds. Photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens Instagram

2019 Spring Plant Sale Details

  • Location: the big tent in the upper Macy’s parking lot at Brookwood Village.
  • Public Spring Plant Sale, April 12-14: Friday 9 a.m.–6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
  • Members-Only Shopping, April 11: Thursday 6:30–8 p.m. For access, join the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens today or at the door.
  • Preview Party, April 11: Thursday 5:30–7 p.m., featuring Fiesta fare and beer and wine. Tickets will be $45 in advance or $50 at the door.

Volunteer Shoutout

Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Spring Plant Sale
Photo submitted

Volunteers from the following schools and organizations, along with many individual volunteers, make the 2019 Spring Plant Sale possible. Give ’em a hand.

  • High Schools: Mountain Brook, Pleasant Grove, Arlington School, Ramsey, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Altamont, Oak Mountain, Indian Springs, Shades Valley and Jefferson County International Baccalaureate
  • Colleges: UAB, Samford University, Birmingham-Southern College, University of Montevallo and Michigan State Alumni Association
  • Companies: Protective Life, Synovus, Junior League of Birmingham, Topgolf, Spire, Whole Foods Market and Glenwood

Sponsor Thank You

Be sure to thank the events’ generous sponsors as well!

  • Brookwood Village, Birmingham Park and Recreation Board, the City of Birmingham, Event Rentals Unlimited and Royal Cup

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