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Native Plant Sale sees success, but Whatcom Conservation District says it was no walk in the park

Despite growth in sales, staff miss in-person learning opportunities

Bundles of seedlings prepped for pick up in Bellingham, Wash. on March 11, 2021. After halting operations on the 2020 sale due to COVID-19, the following year resulted in more sales than ever before. // Courtesy of Whatcom Conservation District

With nearly three decades of providing native plants and resources to the community, Whatcom Conservation District's reputation was not challenged by the pandemic. 

Although not without difficulties, the conservation district celebrated success due to changes made to the operation of the annual Native Plant Sale.

"In 2010, the first year I was part of the sale, we had about 20,000 plants," Emily Hirsch, coordinator for the sale, said. "Last year we probably ended up with close to 32,000 plants."

Hirsch credited the highest number of sales she has seen to both the conservation district's web presence and because of the absence of the open sale, which typically requires a portion of the plants to be set aside.

However, in the current model, all options of 40-plus native tree and shrub species are available for preorder until March 7, though many have already sold out. Orders are scheduled for drive-through pick-up between March 19 and 20.

Another implemented change to the 2021 sale included dropping the minimum purchase amount from $100 to $50.

So far, this year's sale numbers are shaping up to look very similar to last year's Hirsch said, but that's not all that matters to the Whatcom CD.


"Yes, we've sold more plants; there's more plants in the ground, but we're missing that personal connection with folks to help create a plan, and to create habitat for them and to ensure that the plants are really successful is the other piece," said Aneka Sweeney, who focuses on education and outreach for the conservation district.  

Whatcom County is not the only place where gardening and preservation work is on the rise. 

Beth Chisholm works with Washington State University's Whatcom County Extension and their branch of the Master Gardener Program, which is found in many counties nationwide. 

"What we're discovering both at the state level and nationally is that the pandemic as well as climate change has created an uptick in people gardening in general," Chisholm said.

Emily Hirsch (left) and Corina Cheever (right) pose with bundles of hundreds of small plants at Native Plant Sale in Bellingham, Wash. 2016. Despite the sales' success during the pandemic, the cost of drive-through convenience comes at the price of not being able to share experiences and knowledge with visitors-- which staff looked forward to every year. // Courtesy of Whatcom Conservation District

For Whatcom CD, it is important to meet these newly interested gardeners with the knowledge about native plants that they need to be successful. 

"The successes that come in terms of getting more plants out there overshadows some of that missed opportunity that we have," Hirsch said.

Many of the workshops typically offered throughout the year by Whatcom CD were able to transition to an online model, but attendance rates on Zoom events have not matched with the success of the few in-person events offered over the last two years. 

Sweeney said it's been difficult providing tools to people from a digital platform.

"We're really yearning to have that personal connection with folks because we work at that intersection of people and place," Sweeney said.

Some of the things the district works on educating local gardeners about are the benefits of native plant species. Conservation grade plants, like those for sale, help native species of animals adapt better to their changing environments. 

A line of buyers waiting to pick up their orders at the Whatcom Conservation District's Native Plant Sale in Bellingham, Wash. on March 23, 2019. This sale was the last to offer face-to-face pickup; The district opts for drive-through pick up ever since the start of the pandemic. // Courtesy of Whatcom Conservation District

Pam Borso works with the North Cascade Audubon Society on education and volunteer coordination. Before running out of room in her garden, she also bought from the Native Plant Sale. 

Borso said native bird and insect populations do not thrive in the same way when they are living in environments with so many non-native plant species. 

"Flora and fauna co-evolved together, and they need each other," Borso said. "The way that we can restore some of that biodiversity is by planting native plants in our yards."

Madisun Tobisch

Madisun Tobisch (she/her) is a third-year news/editorial major who has worked for The Front in some capacity since winter 2022. After all this time, her love of local news and celebrating the voices of her community keep her coming back for more. As returning managing editor this quarter, she hopes to further The Front's mission of keeping readers, both new and returning, informed and engaged. While not in the newsroom, Madisun can be found barista-ing, watching movies or trying to be creative.

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