As a lifetime gardener and professional garden photographer, Cheryl Richter has a love of plants. Over the past 20 years of working in the horticulture industry, she's been dismayed at what happens to unsold plants. "It always bothered me that there were millions of good quality, unsold plants dumped, plowed under, or burned each year by growers," says Cheryl. Growers dig a certain amount of plants during the dormant season for shipping bare root, and they always have extras. "I work with many of these growers in my marketing business, and every year someone asks me if I'll take some plants at little or no cost," she adds.
Cheryl thought there must be a way to use these plants. Last fall she and her husband, Greg, were thinking about another group they work with -- the Sheltered Workshop Group -- and put two and two together. Sheltered Workshops are nonprofit corporations chartered by the state in which they're located. They offer training and employment to persons who are physically, emotionally, or mentally disabled. Cheryl has been using Sheltered Workshops in Nebraska for years to send out plants as part of her marketing business. The workshops are always looking for extra work. She thought, "Why not use this group to distribute these plants that would otherwise be destroyed to anyone who wants them?" The plants could be used to beautify communities and people's yards, and the workshops would gain a new project.
The Internet allowed Greg and Cheryl the perfect medium to let people know about these plants. This past winter Cheryl and Greg set up a Web site (http://www.freetreesandplants.com) offering these bare-root trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs for free. After some research they found hundreds of small growers across the country willing to contribute plants. Cheryl contracted with a few Sheltered Workshops in Nebraska to ship them. The only charge is $6.95 per unit to cover the cost of shipping the plants to the workshops, preparation at the workshops, and sending the plants out to customers. Cheryl and Greg take no profit for themselves.
Cheryl inspects the plants that come into the workshops from growers. The plants are high quality, but the varieties typically aren't labeled. That's why the Web site doesn't usually list variety names. Plus, plants can sell out quickly so the list of what's available is always changing.
So far FreeTreesandPlants.com has shipped hundreds of plants to individuals across the country. The program has gone so well this spring that Cheryl is thinking of expanding it. "I'd love to see this program in other states; especially where the nurseries are located," she says. That would save costs and expand the program so more people can enjoy these beautiful trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs. "People get free plants, help stop a huge waste, and help disabled people get meaningful work and a paycheck. Everyone wins," say Cheryl.