People sitting at a table helping shoppers check outThere are still lots of jobs that need doing. Join us!

Volunteers are the heart and soul of the Friends School Plant Sale. To say the sale has grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams is an understatement. And it would not have been possible without volunteers.

Some 1,100 [now 1,400] volunteers spend countless hours before, during, and after the sale building tables, unloading plants, putting plants into shoppers’ cars, and much more. In exchange they get a ticket that lets them shop early. Thursday is their big day, before the sale opens to the public on Friday. The volunteers keep doing their jobs, indispensable all the way through to Monday cleanup.

A core group starts it

The organizing committee oversees everything. They work on the sale all year, sourcing plants and assembling the monster catalog. They manage their fellow volunteers, making sure each time slot is filled and the people who sign up also show up.

Nancy Scherer is on the organizing committee. “Many jobs have a coordinator, such as the tidyers, the greeters, the watering cart people, the truck-unloading people, the plant experts, curbside plant pickup—so those volunteers get oriented by their coordinators,” Nancy says.

At the time of this article, there was no overall volunteer coordinator. (They wish they had one. And got one a few years later!) Would-be helpers can sign up online for ­particular tasks and hours. 

This year the two 7th and 8th graders on the organizing committee will advise the special squad of students who look for customers with plant questions. They carry notebooks and wear day-glow green­ vests that say “ASK ME.” All the students prepare for the sale as it approaches by brushing up on their botanical Latin. This makes them more efficient at moving plants from truck to table and helping customers find what they’re looking for. Other students greet customers coming in the door or load plants into cars.

Lots of volunteers make it happen

Cammie McConnell has worked as a volunteer ever since the sale moved from “some parent’s front yard,” as she puts it, to the Minnesota State Fair grandstand. Even in that dimly remembered yard (“…or was it the school’s yard?”) there were always lines of people waiting to buy “great plants you don’t see anywhere else, at reasonable prices.”

A family practice physician in real life, Cammie works on the sale before it opens: Tuesday, one of the setup days. It wasn’t long before she’d convinced her husband, Tim Hanson, a master carpenter, to join in the fun. “I like to work with Tim, and his skill set is building things.”

Their daughter shares her skills, too. “Mariel is working toward a degree in horticulture at Century College.” The family works together, plays together and, on volunteer day, Cammie and Mariel shop together, filling both of the carts Tim built, just for this purpose, with plants.

Tim puts together the sale’s display tables, which have been designed to be easily assembled, taken apart, and stored. That includes the strings that run along the center of the tables. One of Cammie’s tasks is to attach the plant signs to the strings, making sure that the right plants show up under the right labels. “Mariel really helps me out with this.”

Mother and daughter enjoy sharing and expanding their knowledge of plants. Tim isn’t really a plant guy. He likes turning people on to power tools.

“Many of them are intimidated at first.” Just about anyone can handle a two-by-four, he insists. “It’s like anything else. Not too much pressure, not too little.”

They do it for the plants, mostly

Of course the ultimate reward (unless you’re Tim Hanson) is having first crack at the plants. Volunteers get to shop the evening before the sale opens to the public. They work at least one four-hour shift for that privilege.

Cammie is the first to admit that’s what lured her to the sale many year ago. She and Tim live on four acres on the St. Croix River. “About an acre of it is gardens,” she says. “I grow tons of vegetables.” She grows flowers too, and has a fine collection of hardy cacti, an interest sparked by the sale.

“I used to grow all my own seedlings,” she says, “but since the sale I’ve kind of stopped that. There are so many different heirloom tomatoes to choose from here. There’s so much everything and especially plants you don’t see at the local greenhouse or even in the catalogs. I don’t know how they find them.”

I know how they find them. The organizing committee assembles and fine-tunes the yearly inventory. They look for interesting plants online. They follow tips from growers and customers. They listen to volunteers. They track down obscure breeders in out-of-the-way places and scour the new plant lists of over 20 local growers.

Once a plant is ordered and listed in the ­catalog—which, by the way, someone has to write, design, and send to the printer—the ­vigilance doesn’t stop. If there’s a crop failure, someone has to find another supplier or a ­different species to fill the hole.

Many of the more popular varieties are restocked on Saturday morning. Someone has to do that, too—a crew of volunteers who work on what’s called the “all hands on deck” shift starting at 7:00 a.m.

Unless they have other reasons

Friends School alum James Farnsworth, who is now a high school junior, knows the routine by heart. James isn’t a plant geek or a carpenter. He’s into computers and social media. That means he’s a whiz at things like Twitter, walkie-talkies, and line management. Preventing lines is an organizing committee obsession. That’s where James shines.

Weather is another obsession. You don’t want to keep people out in the cold, or the sweltering heat, or a thunderstorm if you can avoid it. All of which has happened. No injuries or hard feelings have ensued, thanks to people like James.

At the end of the day, after all, this isn’t the Super Bowl. It’s just a fundraiser for a Quaker school and its scholarship fund. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. What hard-core gardener wouldn’t enjoy spending the first week of May with peace-­loving people bingeing on plants?

So on behalf of the organizers, this is my shout-out to Cammie and Tim and James and the thousand other volunteers without whom there wouldn’t be a Friends School Plant Sale. That includes the box collectors and the bulb baggers, the stick labelers and the seed sellers, the large sign hangers, the greeter people, and the miraculously cheerful mathematicians who tally up the totals at the checkout tables. They use adding machines to total the plant lists that customers hand over; the machine spits out a total. Some people, volunteers mostly, worry that the sale will be shortchanged because a few plants went unaccounted for.

“I always tack on another 20 percent when I write my check,” says Tim. “It’s just another way of saying thanks.

Wait, Tim, who’s thanking whom again?

People like Tim are why I spend my free time helping a school that I ­didn’t know existed until I attended my first sale 10 years ago. When I first volunteered, I was astonished when a guy in a plaid shirt — who knows, maybe it was Tim — jumped out of the mile-high cab of the rig I was supposed to drive to Hastings by way of Elk River in rush hour, and handed me the keys.

“Ever run a lift gate?” he asked.

I had never heard of a lift gate. What if he figured out I’d never driven a truck this gigantic before, either? Best to keep quiet and get the behemoth out of the driveway in one piece (yes, I had to back it out, with only my dog to keep an eye on the twin-mattress-sized rear-view mirror on the passenger side).

If that isn’t trust, I figured, trust doesn’t exist.

It all happens for a good cause

You already know that Friends School Plant Sale is the finest one in the world. The organizers and I just want to remind you that it’s run by volunteers and volunteers only, some of whom will begin working on the 2016 sale the day after this year’s sale ends.

James puts in 60 hours a year on the sale, many of those hours just before opening day. When the door opens and the crowds of people who’ve been waiting rush in…well, imagine Churchill Downs on Derby Day when the gun goes off and the horses burst through the starting gate. It’s kind of like that.

“Through volunteering at the sale, I’ve learned that I love to work at big events, ­especially in a coordinating role,” he told me.

But there’s more to it than that. “Even though my family never was in need of scholarship funds so I could attend FSM, I chose to get involved with the plant sale because I knew that those funds were directly benefitting some of my best friends.”

That’s the spirit, James. And to all of you shoppers, thanks for coming. We hope you enjoy the sale as much as we do!

—Bonnie Blodgett

Bonnie Blodgett writes The Blundering Gardener ­column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She is the author of several books on gardening.