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UBC plant sale cultivates loyal following

Annual event hosted by Friends of the UBC Botanical Garden

The list of plants available at the annual UBC sale was endless; the perennials alone took up 12 pages of the inventory list, but it was the collective knowledge of the gardeners that set this plant sale apart from others.

Saturday’s sale at the UBC Botanical Garden, called “A Growing Affair,” started more than two decades ago as the “Perennial Plant Sale.” It’s hosted by a group of gardening enthusiasts, many of whom are certified master gardeners called Friends of the UBC Botanical Garden, or FOG as they call one another.

“People want information and they want to learn,” said Ronda Tuyp, a FOG master gardener and sale’s chairperson. “That’s what makes this plant sale different from a lot of them out there because a lot of us are experts on plants. We propagate them here, we raise them, we grow them, we label them — everything’s done by the FOGs.”

The gardeners have also tracked gardening trends throughout the years, especially in relation to the shift in Vancouver’s housing market, added Tuyp who has been involved with the sale since its start.

“We find the focus is much more geared towards smaller gardens as opposed to when we first started out in 1991. Then, there were huge estate gardens where people were looking for very rare and unusual plants,” said Tuyp. “People now are looking for vegetables, fruits that they can grow in their own home and patio containers for plants and smaller gardens. We’ve noticed the trend in the last five years and, so we’re adjusting to that trend.”

Other challenges the UBC Botanical gardeners face include dealing with invasive plant species and pests. Amongst the tables set up in the garden where experts fielded questions about birds, rare plants and pruning, botanical garden “Hortline” staff along with master gardeners had their own station. There, staff focused on introducing the public to topics such as fire ant prevention and benefits of micro clover.

On the latter subject, Tuyp said the clover is a good replacement for grasses, especially on local boulevards and medians that have been destroyed by the European chafer beetle.

“You’ll notice all the boulevards are a mess,” said Tuyp. “It’s the chafer larvae under the turf and the crows and raccoons dig down to eat them because they’re luscious, fat, and chewy... People want to learn more, too, about how to manage gardens. They don’t have gardeners doing it for them, they’re doing it themselves.”

New gardeners are also interested in plants and flowers that help the bee, bird, and butterfly populations due to all the dire media stories about the species’ plights of late, added Tuyp who added plants in the sale were all suited to Vancouver’s coastal climate.

In addition to having answers to any dirt and plant question (the most popular: shade vs. sun plants), the gardeners also provided the sort of customer service that most retail businesses could learn a thing or two from. For instance, if you had given up on finding a sweet pea flower, one of the gardeners would have tracked you down 10 minutes after enquiring with said plant in hand. Thirsty? A high school volunteer would pour you a glass of iced lemon water from a jug they carried around the grounds.

It’s a passion for plants and natural landscapes the FOGs share, a tradition that began in 1975 when Dr. Roy L. Taylor, then director of the UBC garden, placed a notice in the school alumni paper, asking for volunteers. That initial group of seven grew into today’s active membership of 160, several of whom volunteered for the popular annual sale.

Kelly Cannell and her brother Thom make a point of visiting the sale every year because it’s a well-priced experience.

“Look at all that,” Kelly said, pointing to a small forest of trees, shrubs and plants she, Thom and Thom’s kids, Summer and Calder, had hauled from the cashier table to the parking lot. “All that for $70. It’s less than half price than what we would’ve paid anywhere else. This is the best sale — it’s our favourite.”