Made it for the 8 AM preview yesterday at the Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners spring plant sale, and as expected it was crazy. At least 200 people showed up for the 'preview', and the majority of these only came so that they were assured early entry to the sale. Easily 80% of the sale is dedicated to fruit trees that are adaptable to conditions in Harris county precinct 2 – which generally is the southeast corner of the county. Most all of Harris County is in USDA plant hardiness zone 9a. This basically means that the lowest annual temperature is no lower than 20 F. There is some argument that the southern area of Harris County and all of Galveston County is actually in zone 9b, where the lowest annual average temperature is somewhere closer to 30 F.
In any event, the plant sale in precinct 2 is really customized for 9b, and so it attracts a large crowd of people anxious to purchase fruit trees and plants that are well proved by the master gardeners in their area to thrive. Unfortunately most of what is sold at the 'big box' nurseries in Houston is not at all appropriate for the climate in southern Harris county. Additionally, most tropicals and unique plants are not sold in the big stores. These two facts drive the attendance at this plant sale – it's a once a year event, and the crowds come out for it.
Even knowledgeable of all of this, the precinct 2 master gardeners are not able to coordinate their event. The vast majority of the 200 people who showed up for the preview were only there to get a jump on the crowds and get their fruit trees/plants as fast as possible to avoid the major delays in checkout that are inevitable once everyone is let in. The line for checkout easily gets to 3 hours long within the first 30 minutes of the sale. This is because the organizers have one line for checkout – regardless of payment type, and the volunteers that run the checkout have to look up each plant individually. It takes at least 10 minutes to check out each person, plus any time to process a credit card. With 300-400 people, this adds up quickly.
I go to get tomatoes and peppers – this year my focus was on tomatoes. On my last visit I showed up half an hour after the event 'started' only to find the inevitable madhouse created by the huge crowds, and to realize to my horror that paying with a credit card would require a 4 hour wait. Last year I left my selections with Jaime and went to an ATM to get cash to pay my bill – as there is a cash line for people buying tomatoes and peppers that does not require nearly as long a wait as the other line.
This year I came prepared with cash and an early wake up alarm. Supposedly, everyone that attended to 8 AM preview was supposed to get 15 minutes head start on the 'rest' of the crowds. However, the talk lasted until nearly 9:05 and when we were 'released' into the shopping area the organizers went ahead and let the folks in line (who had not attended the preview) come in as well.
The result was a madhouse of pushing and shoving to grab the plants that were most in demand. I probably hip-checked at least 4 old ladies to get at the tomatoes I wanted, and for those that had not reviewed the lists of available plants ahead of time the most logical course of action was to hoard – grab as much as possible within reach and get the heck into line to pay for it. As I knew exactly what I was after, I strategically shoved my way to the get plants on my list. Jaime, on the other hand, got separated from me and grabbed what she thought were good options.
I have space for 14 plants in my garden, and was on a mission to retrieve at least 2-4 on top of that for my father-in-law. We ended up with about 20 plants, and gave the remainder to someone in 'line' to get into the tomato area.
A quick word on this 'line'. The tomato area of the event is under a tent, and has enough space for two people to pass each other on each side, standing up. With plants under the tables, people carrying trays and pulling wagons, this becomes an issue very quickly, as anyone that stops to read the plant tags or bend down to check out the items under the tables is run over, and a huge human traffic jam results. The inexperienced queue up on one end of the tent, waiting their 'turn' to get inside. What they do not realize is that this monument to disorganization means that their line really doesn't move. When we were 'released' from the talk, I rushed to the opposite end of the tomato tent and began shoving my way through. Many rookies shot me dirty looks as I pushed my way back to the 'line', but I just shoved, reached over or pushed them and stayed focused – and got the plants on my list.
By the time we checked out (at 9:30AM – 30 minutes after opening) the line for 'normal' checkout was easily 3 hours long and nearly every fruit tree in the sale was gone. The tomatoes and peppers lasted a bit longer, but the crowd picking through the remains remained easily 100+ people.
So with all of this craziness why do I go? Well, part of it is the adventure of the whole thing, and another part is that I get varieties I simply wouldn't be able to get otherwise, with an assurance that they will grow in my garden.