Garden: Charity begins at home... and blooms in the garden

Plant sales may be great for fund-raising, but having the right produce at the right stage on the day demands military planning.
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The Independent Culture
AS SURE as echeveria is echeveria, there comes a moment, if you are a keen gardener, when you get involved in growing plants to raise money for charity. Plant sales, large and small, are proven money-spinners (in comparison to white elephant stalls, at least) and, although they require commitment in terms of time, greenhouse and frame space, equipment and good temper, they are great fun. Well, in retrospect at least.

Last January, I volunteered to organise a plant stall for the church fete. What could be simpler, I thought? After all, I owned a couple of small greenhouses, one of which I could heat, and some cold frames, could bank on local good will and promises of pots and plants, and I had a burning desire to be useful, knowing that my hidden talents for making crafts and toys, not to mention chocolate cakes, were best left hidden.

I soon learnt that there are wrinkles to this business. It has to be planned as carefully as a military campaign. To begin with, you must take account of the date of the sale and draw up a timetable. There is always the danger of sowing seeds too early, in a fit of understandable enthusiasm, only to discover that the plants are pot-bound and half-starved by the time they are required.

You have to grow plants that will sell, not necessarily those that you like, or are good at growing. Tender annuals, for example, will not shift in late June, for many people will have bought them for planting several weeks earlier.

And you have to take account of changing attitudes towards garden-making. Rooted shrub cuttings, though excellent value, will probably not sell well, because potential customers know that they need to be grown on before planting out. Potted-up hardy perennials will shift only if they are in flower or if they are a little unusual; at our sale, someone's tree peony seedlings went like a bomb. Herbs are always popular, especially those you have to sow each year, such as parsley, chervil and basil.

We discovered that for a late June sale, the winners were flowering house- plants, such as streptocarpuses, saintpaulias, pelargoniums, cacti and other succulents. Thankfully, a kind neighbour, who came to help sell, brought a large basket of rooted streptocarpus cuttings in pots; these were accompanied by larger flowering plants, which were put on the table so that customers knew what colour flower they were getting. (We had to be so careful not to sell these, for fear of being left high and dry with their flowerless progeny). Popular, too, were the F1 hybrid pelargoniums, which I sowed in the last week in January in heat, which were flowering fit to bust.

If you have promised to help at such an event this spring or summer, it is time to be thinking about how to go about it. You need to sort out which seed to sow, and what should be rooted from cuttings in spring; take note on seed packets of the time between sowing and flowering, and calculate back from the date of the sale. You need your dispositions sorted out. Can you feed, water and shade plants effectively? How much potting compost and how many modules and pots will you need? The majority will be 9cm or 10cm, unless you plan to pot up hardy perennials, in which case they may need to be at least 15cm. Square pots are better than round, as they are easier to "line out" and, later, easier to transport. Pots breed in sheds, like coathangers in wardrobes, so most gardeners are delighted to offload some of them on you.

Where are you going to put the plants? A single tray of begonia seedlings, when potted on, may translate into several feet of staging. If you don't want to heat a greenhouse much, see if you can buy plantlets in bulk in spring from a wholesale nursery. Take account of the fact that all plants, for summer sales at least, need to be well "hardened off" before the day of the sale.

If you are growing for a "rare plant" sale, such as are organised by local groups of the NCCPG, things will be rather different. In some ways, these sales are easier, for you can expect the clientele to be quite happy to buy a pot with a few indeterminate stems or leaves in it, bearing no flowers. The only adamant requirements are that the pot should be distinctly and accurately labelled and that those selling should be able to answer the questions: "What does it do?" and, "When does it do it?"

On second thoughts, I think I'll restrict my efforts to raising money for the church roof.