Masked individuals pick out produce and other farmed goods at Tilth Alliance's farm stand.

Tilth Alliance Gets Ready to Bloom at 38th-Annual Plant Sale

by Carolyn Bick

Almost 40 years ago, Tilth Alliance’s plant sale was a modest affair, meant for just a few people in the neighborhood to share and discover varieties of decorative and edible plants.

Now, the nonprofit organic gardening and urban ecology organization’s annual plant sale has grown to become the largest in the region — a massive affair of lush greenery and silky flowers of different native plants spilling over the sides of pots and containers. The plant sale usually takes place at The Good Shepherd Center in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle but last year took place online, due to the pandemic. This year will see a return to an in-person event with limited capacity. The sale will take place from May 7–14 at Tilth Alliance’s urban garden space tucked away just off South Cloverdale Street in South Seattle. 

In 2019, Tilth Alliance offered more than 532 unique varieties of plants and had 60,000 plants available for sale. Though she doesn’t know the exact number of people who will attend the plant sale this year, Tilth Alliance’s Natural Yard Care Program Director Laura Matter said she has already ordered thousands of plants, everything from vegetables to edible flowers to pollinator plants.

“In the pollinator plant section, there might be things that are not edible, but we separate them out on purpose, because some of them could be,” Matter explained. “We want to feature them as plants that are really good for attracting pollinators, so we give them a separate section. In that section, you will find some native plants.”

Most of these plants come from Oxbow Farms in Carnation, Washington, Matter said, but Tilth Alliance works with local farmers and gardeners from all over the region.

Matter sent along a list of some of the native pollinator plants Tilth Alliance will have for sale. The list includes delicate early blue violets — one of Matter’s favorites — star-like clusters of common wooly sunflowers, and sea blushes, pom-poms of tiny pink blooms that peek up from between clasped leaves.

Matter said that there are several varieties of edible and decorative plants that are suitable for beginners or for those who simply don’t have a “green thumb.” Though she has a hard time choosing favorite plants — she told the Emerald that she has many — she said she is especially fond of tomatoes, particularly a variety of small, jewellike dark blue-black cherry tomato called “Dancing with Smurfs.” She also said that there are a number of pepper species, all of which vary in spiciness.

“We have one … called Trinidad perfume, which is a habñero-type — not super-hot. It’s hot, but not blazing hot,” Matter said, “and very perfumey, so when you are cooking it, you can smell the … sweet perfume of it. That’s another that’s good for quick frying or to add to a vegetable dish.”

Matter also said that there are several herbs, including basil and lavender, as well as lettuce and beans that are not only fairly easy to grow but also decorative and edible. For instance, she said, lettuce “comes in all colors and sizes,” which means it would be perfect for novice gardeners looking to spruce up their vegetative decor without sacrificing edibility.

“They all have a little variation in flavor to how sweet they are, but they are extremely decorative, so I like to talk to people about mixing things like that into pots with other flowers, because they look good together,” Matter said. “You can have the rotating display in a pot on your porch — things that you harvest out, things that you plant back in.”

Sheryl Wiser, Tilth Alliance’s director of outreach, said that the plant sale is “absolutely critical” for the nonprofit, because the sale’s proceeds fund many of the nonprofit’s adult and “kids & youth” classes and programs throughout the year. The adult classes, which are available in-person, online, and as a hybrid model of in-person and online, include everything from learning about “companion planting” (what plants grow best together) to beginners’ plant propagation — how to create new plants from seeds, cuttings, and divisions — to identifying and gathering edible weeds and wild foods. The “kids & youth” classes and programs include farm and garden camps and garden workshops.

“This is our biggest fundraiser. For any nonprofit, unrestricted funding is a lifeline, and so this is so critical to all of Tilth’s programs that aren’t funded in another capacity [through] grants or other contracts,” Wiser said. “It’s especially important for our community education.”

She also said that the plant sale encourages and represents “a beautiful, symbiotic relationship” between the people and the land. Whether people come to beautify their homes or to grow their own foods or simply out of curiosity, going home with a plant to nurture is ultimately beneficial to nature and to people.

Like Matter, Wiser also said that it’s difficult to choose a favorite plant but that she adores rose geraniums. She remembers buying her first rose geranium from Tilth Alliance’s plant sale in 2016.

“It has a smell … that is magic. And it’s a particular kind of rose geranium — Attar of Roses,” she said, referring to a variety of easy-to-grow, richly scented geranium, whose scientific name is Pelargonium capitatum. “It is so heavenly. And I also jam — I preserve fruit, I jam — so I have made jams and used geranium leaves to give them scent.”

Wiser also listed cherry tomatoes among her favorite plants, classifying them very scientifically as “the bomb diggity.”

The plant sale will take place at Tilth Alliance, which is located at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, 5513 South Cloverdale Street, Seattle, Washington, 98118, with different hours of operation, depending on the day.

Tilth Alliance will be offering shopping slots of either 30 or 60 minutes, and people must register to attend on their website. Face masks are required. Gardeners and plant enthusiasts are asked to bring their own trolleys or carts with which to transport plants back to their cars, because curbside plant pick-up will not be available. Each person who registers may bring one guest but no more than that. Wiser said that because the event will be held outside on a working urban farm, people should plan to dress for the weather and be ready to walk.

For more information, check out Tilth Alliance’s handy guide to the plant sale.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

📸 Featured Image: People pick out produce and other farmed goods at Tilth Alliance’s farm stand at the organization’s Rainier Beach home base in Seattle, Washington, on June 25, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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