ARTICLE BY: GERHARD BOCK
Davis, California, gardener and blogger Gerhard Bock made his first trip to Hortlandia this year, today he shares his experience with us. You can follow along with Gerhard’s travel and garden adventures on his blog Succulents and More.
This spring I finally had the opportunity to experience an event my PNW gardening friends have been raving about forever: Hortlandia, the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon’s (HPSO) annual spring plant sale.
Hortlandia isn’t “just” another plant sale, it’s the Coachella of plant sales! It’s such a massive event that it’s held at the Portland EXPO Center. You do need plenty of space when you have 50+ plant vendors and 30+ garden art vendors—not to mention 6,000+ visitors!
These stats blew my mind. There’s nothing like that in California, certainly not in Northern California. Unlike the usual home and garden shows, which seem to be about anything but plants, Hortlandia is all about plants—plants you can buy and take home!
Of course each vendor can only bring a limited selection of their actual inventory so you can’t count on finding a specific plant (unless you’ve made prior arrangements with a vendor). For me, this element of chance is actually what makes things exciting. Sure, I always have a mental list of plants I want at any given point in time, but not knowing precisely what there will be forces me to slow down, look closely, and read the labels. This often leads to serendipitous finds—plants I had forgotten about, or plants I hadn’t ever heard of before. It’s a lot like browsing in a bookstore. Sticking with a Portland theme, you could call Hortlandia the Powell’s of plant sales (Powell’s Books in Portland is said to be the largest independent bookstore in the world).
As you can imagine, an event the size of Hortlandia requires hundreds of volunteers—before, during and afterwards. I’ve been a member of the HPSO for a year now, and since I can’t go to any of their monthly events, I decided to at least help out at Hortlandia. I flew to Portland on Thursday evening so I could work a shift on Friday. Loree of danger garden and I spent four hours helping vendors move plants from their vehicles to their table inside the EXPO Center. Basically, we loaded trays of plants onto carts, hauled the carts inside, and then unloaded them. It was great fun getting a peek at the plants as they were arriving and chatting with the vendors. I plan on volunteering again next year for that reason alone.
But there’s a more selfish reason, too: Volunteers get early admission to the EXPO Center on Saturday morning. For 90 minutes we were able to take a close look at the vendor tables and shop in peace without having to elbow your way through throngs of people to get to the plant you’re interested in.
Never having been to Hortlandia before, I had no idea what would happen when the doors opened to the public at 10:00. A scene from the movie Dances With Wolves came to mind: John Dunbar (Kevin Costner’s character) going on his first buffalo hunt with the Sioux tribe he’d befriended. It begins with an almost imperceptible sound, a low rumble that keeps getting louder and louder. Then you see a cloud of dust, getting bigger and bigger. And finally there’s an explosion of buffaloes, hundreds of them, thousands. Not that I’m comparing the good folks who came to Hortlandia to buffaloes, but you get my drift. Within 30 minutes, the spacious EXPO Center hall was full of people.
I spent another hour walking around, focusing on vendors I’d passed over earlier in the morning and chatting with Portland friends I ran into. Eventually, though, Loree and I decided to bite the bullet and stand in line to pay.
But let me back up a little at this point. At Hortlandia, you don’t pay each plant vendor individually for your purchases. Instead, you gather all your plants in a box, no matter from how many different vendors they came from, and then pay for everything at the same time at one of the checkouts. This makes buying much simpler.
If you fill your box but aren’t done shopping yet, or it simply gets too heavy to lug around, you can drop it off at the plant holding area conveniently located between the vendor tables and the checkout. When I saw the empty holding area on Friday, I thought, “Why are they wasting so much space on this? There’s no way they’ll fill such a large holding area.” Of course I was an idiot for thinking that. By now, Hortlandia’s organizers have a pretty good understanding of what’s needed. By 11:00 on Saturday morning, the plant holding area was chock full of boxes, with over a dozen volunteers dashing to and fro.
This year Hortlandia had 12 (twelve!) checkouts. Try to visualize 12 lines leading to 12 cash registers. That’s more than most supermarkets have. And in spite of this superb setup, it still took Loree and me almost 45 minutes to pay for our plants. That tells you how many people were at Hortlandia on Saturday morning. In fact, from what I gathered later, attendance records were broken this year!
We did hear people grumbling about the long checkout lines, with one visibly annoyed woman stating categorically that she would never come back (although she did continue through the checkout line to pay for her plants). From my perspective, the wait was simply a fact of life, given the crowds. I saw nothing that the organizers could have done better or differently. Heck, if I were to organize a similar event, I’d be thrilled if so many people showed up. And the buyers should be excited, too, that there’s so much interest in plants and gardening. A thriving community of like-minded people is good for everybody and gives nurseries the economic reward they need to keep bringing us cool plants.
With some pushing and shoving, I managed to fit all my Hortlandia plants into one box. Despite appearances to the contrary, I was being selective, but there are just too many different types of plants I like. It’s a problem I don’t mind having.