BOWDOINHAM – After nearly four decades of holding a plant sale, it’s inevitable there will be some funny plant sale stories.
Betsy Steen, one of the founders of the Bowdoinham plant sale, sat in a pile of dirt in late April with other volunteers who were potting catnip, bee balm and sweet dame’s rocket for this year’s sale, and recounted the story of Dr. Irish.
Dr. Irish was Steen’s cat, named after the previous owner of her house. Every year, Dr. Irish accompanied Steen to the plant sale at town hall.
“He would march around the hall until he found the catnip,” Steen said. “And then he would park himself, and he would eat it all. So we had to put it in a cage to protect it.”
It’s not surprising that it took Steen a while to catch on to Dr. Irish’s furtive feasts. The Bowdoinham plant sale routinely sells thousands of plants annually to hundreds of people, many of whom line up outside town hall before the 9 a.m. opening every year hoping to be among the first inside. At the stroke of 9 a.m., a bagpiper leads everyone into the hall.
Steen tells people who have never been to the sale before to consider coming later in the day to avoid the initial crush of shoppers.
“We suggest people come around 10, because at 9 o’clock it’s like Filene’s basement (in Boston),” she said. “I go and hide in the corner. There’s maybe 50 or 100 people lined up outside at 9.”
The Bowdoinham sale, now in its 39th year, is the longest continuously running plant sale in the state. Its longevity has been marked with a plaque from the state Legislature installed at the local library, which has been the beneficiary of the sale since it started in 1974. Last year, the event raised more than $10,000.
Diana Mosher moved to Bowdoinham six years ago. After getting a library card, she decided to volunteer for the plant sale. She went to her first planning meeting, “and pretty soon I realized that this isn’t a plant sale, this is a PLANT SALE.”
Every year beginning on Patriots Day, Steen and a cadre of volunteers from the community start digging up plants that have overwintered in a plot on Steen’s property to get them ready for the sale. The sale includes perennials, trees and shrubs from two holding beds and local gardens, and annual and vegetable seedlings purchased from Longfellow’s in Manchester. Wildflowers, herbs and ground covers are also available for purchase.
This year’s plant sale will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 19. Organizers have decided to include antique roses and day lilies, herbs and other heirloom plants to mark the town’s 250th birthday.
They are also going to display posters that have been used at the plant sale over the years. The posters depict what’s planted in a Saint’s Garden (bishop’s weed, Mary’s flower), a weaver’s garden (coreopsis, thyme), a Colonial garden and a Shakespearean garden (plants mentioned in Shakespearean plays or that grew at that time). Handouts listing the plants will be available.
Steen and her friend Leslie Anderson have worked the plant sale from the beginning.
“I moved to town the year this started,” Steen said. “I knew about plants, so I said, ‘Gee, I’d like to help.’ The library in town needed refurbishing. It was battleship gray and ugly. So the library committee decided they would have a plant sale to buy paint. We made $131, and painted it tangerine and lemon.”
“We were young mothers in town at that point,” noted Anderson.
The two women’s children endured some embarrassing situations over the years, and took to calling themselves “plant-sale orphans.” If Anderson spotted an old milk jug on the side of the road and stopped to pick it up so she could plant something in it, her kids slid down in the back seat to hide.
“Or if something were flowering along the roadside where nobody would care, we’d pull over, and the kids would go ‘Mom!’ and slide down in the seat in the back. ‘I don’t know you,’ ” she said. “And when the school buses would go by (Steen’s house), ‘There’s mom sitting in the dirt pile.”‘
All of the effort has paid off. The sale now provides about half the library’s annual budget. The most it’s made in any one year was $14,598.66 (Steen’s meticulous record-keeping is down to the cent), and they estimate that over the years, they have made a total profit of $244,767.13.
“It’s allowed us to have a good book budget, and allowed us to have the library open as much as we do,” Steen said. “And (it pays) the salary for the librarian. It’s a very good small library. It has a lot of kids’ programs, and it’s a place where people just go. And I think the plant sale has helped it be that way.”
It takes about 1,000 hours of volunteer time to get the sale together, Mosher said, “but because it’s been done for so long, and a lot of people do the same job every year, it kind of rolls along rather smoothly. It is work intensive, but it’s worth it.”
The Bowdoinham sale has become a community event, with about 100 volunteers doing everything from potting and transporting plants to the town hall to dealing with parking on the day of the sale. Steen keeps a large sign on her front lawn with the hours they’ll be digging and potting plants so that passersby can stop in and help when they can.
Some of the adults working on the sale this year were kids when they first started volunteering.
“We don’t have any grandchildren helping as adults yet,” Steen said, “but we’re getting there.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: