A plant crew with a view

by: Nancy Townsley, Forest Grove High School junior Ashley Briggs fills large hanging baskets with greenery in anticipation of the annual plant sale.

Just call them 'Charlie's Angels.' The 50 or so Forest Grove High School horticulture students who've stayed after school most weekdays since January to dig in the dirt with FFA adviser Charlie Vandehey are serious about their work. Officially, they're known as the Viking Plant Crew. Together, they've sunk more than 200,000 plants into tiny containers - and huge ones, too - to get ready for the annual plant sale.

'These kids do all the planting and plant care leading up to the sale,' said Vandehey, who also is their agriculture teacher.

The end of this month, the public will be able to buy begonias and geraniums, petunias and impatiens. Not to mention a few more obscure garden plants, such as verbena, blizzard ivy and red salvia.

Some will be sold in individual plastic containers, while others will wind up in glori-ously colorful hanging baskets, perfectly appropriate for Mother's Day.

The Mother of All Plant Sales starts on April 30 and continues May 1, 2 and 5 at the high school, 1401 Nichols Lane.

It's a four-decade-long tradition that each year draws thousands of folks to the humidified halls of the school's seven greenhouses, out by the FFA animal barn.

'It's a huge event in our community,' said Connie Potter, the school district's public information coordina-tor. 'People literally line up for a full block on the first day, waiting to get in.'

The sale's reputation for healthy, hearty and gorgeous plants precedes it, Potter added. Spring annuals and bedding plants galore peek out above dozens of tables displaying their wares.

If you're into pastels, lav-ender, pink and white are all there. Love the brighter shades? You'll also find sunny yellows, delicious reds and passionate purples.

For Vandehey, who gradu-ated from FGHS in 1996 and has led the school's FFA program for four years, it's an extension of his own growing-up years on the family farm.

Hands-on opportunities

'This is a great thing, because kids these days don't get to have these hands-on, life-experience kinds of opportunities very often,' he said.

Vandehey's not shy about promoting his department's largest fund-raiser of the year.

'If you want to make your yard look pretty, this is the place to come,' Vandehey said. 'We're not about house plants.'

Vandehey and crew count on more than $50,000 in sales in order to make a profit, which goes to support the FFA animal barns on-site at the high school.

There's a ton of overhead that goes into preparation for the sale. Two semi-truck loads of 'planting media,' a soil-less concoction of cocoa fiber, vermiculi and peat moss, come from Teufel Nursery in Portland. Plant 'plugs' - tens of thousands of them - are purchased from Ball Seed in Ohio and Al's Garden Cen-ter in Sherwood, Ore.

'Every dollar we spend, we have to earn back, plus more,' noted Vandehey.

In 2006, total expenses hovered around $40,000. The sale took in $53,000 for a tidy $13,000 profit.

'We did really well,' Vandehey said. He estimates that on the first day of the sale, they'll move about $10,500 worth of plants.

'It's a big community thing,' he observed.

Minimum wage

Working in the greenhouse last week, FGHS sophomore Lacie Leis toiled in the soil with a smile on her face. She grabbed flowing ivy and other flashy plants from the program's inventory to create 20-inch hanging baskets.

'I thought this would be a fun experience,' said the first-time Plant Crew member.

Leis, sophomore Natausha MacLean and junior Ashley Briggs labored alongside Diane Van Dyke, co-owner of Oak River Farm and Nursery south of Hillsboro.

Van Dyke has been a nurserywoman for the past 12 years and worked with the Plant Crew since 2005.

It isn't all volunteer - the students are paid minimum wage, $7.80 per hour, to help prep the plants. And that's a good thing, because the responsibility is daunting.

Students fertilize the plants with a granulated food and water them using an elaborate drip system right inside the greenhouses.

'They've got to be able to control the temperature, the humidity, the light and every-thing,' said Vandehey. 'It isn't a small task.'

Their attentiveness pays off in spades, he noted.

'We have a lot of people who come down specifically to buy our baskets for Mother's Day,' Vandehey said. At $16 to $50, 'they're paying a dollar or so more than at BiMart.

'But we really try to do a bigger, higher quality basket.'

City of Forest Grove officials were so impressed that they awarded the high school's budding horticulturists this year's contract for 44 hanging baskets.

The baskets will be installed along Pacific Avenue and Main Street by mid-May, and should beautify the downtown core until fall.

'Part of our agreement is that we put up the baskets and then return two weeks later to make sure there are no dead plants,' Vandehey noted. The city's automatic drip system will keep the baskets hydrated.

The 20-inch baskets weigh 45 to 55 pounds each.

Van Dyke, too, vouched for the quality of all the FGHS plants, inside and outside the sale.

'We fertilize all our baskets with a slow-release fertilizer so they'll be beautiful throughout the summer,' she said. 'If the plant is healthy when it leaves here, it'll do OK.'

Still, Vandehey reminded her, 'there are no guarantees' that go along with the plants. 'We guarantee we'll smile at you,' he said with a laugh.

No clearance sale

Once the initial sale is finished, any leftover plants have a second - and a third - chance at getting into a garden.

Vandehey trucks what's left to Bend, where the FFA chapter has no greenhouse. 'We made $5,000 there last year,' he said.

And, in mid-June, he makes a trip to Christmas Valley, halfway between Lakeview and LaPine, where his aunt and uncle have a farm.

'Everybody over here is done with planting by then, but in eastern Oregon they're just getting started because it's finally done freezing,' he said.

If you're from Forest Grove and fail to make it to the main event between April 30 and May 5, don't come crying to Vandehey, however.

'Don't expect a clearance sale,' he warned with a good-natured grin.