Fedco’s Tree Sale: a Maine Adventure

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Yesterday was my first-ever visit to the annual Fedco Tree Sale and what an adventure it was! An event the reminded me of Black Friday─but instead of sales on electronics, toys, and household gadgets people were lining up to take advantage on huge savings on trees and plants.

fedco tree sale

Growers come from all over the northeast to take part in Fedco’s annual sale.

Maine’s longstanding agricultural heritage and community of trend-setting farmers has spurred the establishment of not one seed-company in our state, but two. You’ve heard me talk about Johnny’s Selected Seeds and many growers out there are already familiar with that catalog, but have you heard of Fedco Seeds?

Fedco is a cooperative based out of Clinton, Maine. Established in 1978 when the company took on the tree order from John Bunker (Maine’s legendary apple expert), first filling orders for Maine customers but now grown to serve customers in all 50 states and broken into 5 divisions including Seeds, “Moose Tubers” (Maine seed potatoes), Organic Growers’ Supply, Trees, and Bulbs. As they’ve grown Fedco has maintained it’s grassroots feel and cooperative mentality, encouraging customers to “make cooperation work for you by forming ordering groups to take advantage of our generous volume discounts.”

The Fedco catalogs are printed on recycled newsprint paper and maintain that grassroots feel and appearance, with black and white line-drawings scattered throughout the publications and detailed descriptions of each item. I especially love Fedco’s tree catalog and have spent hours and hours in years past pouring over the thing─lusting after the antique apple varieties with their descriptions depicting the legacy of each tree. I admit I have always enjoyed learning about history and that affinity readily crosses to agriculture so that I have this obsessive fascination with the history behind plant varieties, farmlands and the stories of farmers who came before my time.

With Runamuk’s unsettled past I’ve avoided buying and planting any perennials larger than a clump of chives or coreopsis. Being a landless-farmer makes it difficult to put down roots and really dig into a piece of land in the way that perennials like apples and nut trees require. It’s hard enough to leave behind a vegetable garden after spending several years building the soil, to have to leave behind long-lived plants like an apple tree would be unthinkable, so haven’t made the investment.

However when I was invited to accompany my friend (and long-standing supporter of Runamuk) Gwen Hilton, I thought the Fedco Tree Sale might be a good opportunity to score a gift for Paul’s upcoming birthday. He owns 40 acres here and has talked in the past about creating a food-forest garden on his property, so a tree seemed to be the perfect gift.

Friday morning dawned and I was filled with excitement and anticipation, dropped the kids off at school and met up with Gwen and her friend Valerie Comstock, who is another avid gardener and retired teacher from Starks. We 3 ladies piled into the Hilton’s old farm-truck, affectionately named “Nellie” and set off for Clinton and the Fedco Tree Sale.

trees at fedco tree sale

The trees and plants were lined up under their corresponding identification cards.

fedco fruit trees

Carefully assembled displays of trees all in a row!

It’s thanks in-part to Fedco’s cooperative mentality that they are able to offer this annual sale on trees and plants, and it’s a really big deal for gardeners and farmers. People wait all year for this event, coming from as far as Aroostook County or from out-of-state to take advantage of the prices to make big investments in their land. It’s a labor of love and hope, a dedication to improving our little patch of Earth, a commitment to improving our own lives and the atmosphere inside the warehouse was positive and inspiring. It was an amazing feeling.

The crew at Fedco is made up of gardeners and farmers who know their stuff and the set up at the tree sale was well done. The trees and plants were organized into groups according to type, and then the different varieties were lines up down the row. There were identification cards stapled to the wooden beam above with a few basic facts about each variety to help growers make selections. Information like the recommended use for the fruit (ie-dessert, storage, fresh-eating, etc), estimated harvest season (early, mid-season, or late), and other pertinent information. The bareroot trees were then lined up under their ID card and mounded with moist sawdust to await their new caretakers.

at fedco tree sale

My fearless companions on this adventure: Valerie Comstock on the left and Gwen Hilton on the right.

We arrived just after 9 and already the warehouse was packed with growers of all ages and walks of life. Many folks came with a list of varieties they’d selected out of the catalog and they pushed their way through the throng to get in and out as quickly as possible. Trees and plants were put into boxes or shopping carts and one had to be mindful as you moved up and down the rows, both of your own trees’ branches and of the tree branches of those around you. There were many friends and acquaintances, people who might not have seen each other in a while reconnecting over a common interest; even among strangers there was a free exchange of information about growing that bridges cultural gaps. It’s inspiring to see how gardening can impact people.

The whole thing was rather impulsive and spur of the moment for me. I had not intended to buy perennials this year but with Gwen’s invite and Paul’s approaching birthday I reconsidered. I knew he wanted dwarf apple trees, and we had talked in the past about the Black Locust─a great early-season nectar source for bees, as well as a really nice hardwood for fence posts, lumber or firewood, so I had that in mind as I wove my way through the crowds with my companions. I found the locust, which seemed reasonably priced at $12.50.

It turned out the only dwarf apple trees Fedco had at the tree sale was in the form of rootstock. I was a little dismayed at first. I’d imagined getting Paul a 2 or 3 year old tree. But a kindly older gentleman with laughing blue eyes explained that I could graft whatever varieties I wanted onto the rootstock, and I think he would have come to Runamuk to show me just how to do it if the distance between our 2 homes weren’t so great (one of the downsides to Maine is that it’s a large state and it can sometimes take several hours to get from one place to another). However with my large community of friends and aquaintances I’m certain I’ll find someone to teach me how to graft when the time comes. What’s more, Fedco hosts an annual Scion-Exchange event that makes establishing new varieties very affordable, so I wound up getting a bundle of 10 dwarf apple tree rootstock for just $20 bucks!

The line to check out wrapped around the back wall of the warehouse, but it was pleasant enough standing there conversing with friends about growing and farming, and the sales were worth the time spent. When we finally reached the front the Fedco folks expertly bundled each customer’s plants, packing the bare roots of the trees and shrubs with moist sawdust, and then wrapping it all together with ceran wrap. I charged it to a dusty credit card I’d pulled out of my dresser drawer for the occasion and walked out of the warehouse feeling like a winner: I spent just $32.50 for 11 trees!

check out line at fedco tree sale

This is the check out line: running along the back wall, and then along the side wall to the front of the warehouse.

wrapping the tree roots at fedco tree sale

These guys are skilled at packing up the ungangly masses of roots for shipping and transportation of live plants!

me at fedco tree sale

Here I am with my locust and rootstock!

We wrapped up our adventure by stopping up the road to the Fedco seeds and supply warehouses and then stopped for lunch at the Kel-Met Cafe in Skowhegan (another first for me), but it was the Tree Sale that was the high point of the day. That feeling of hope and love─this positive and inspiring vibe that permeated the tree warehouse and spilled out onto the grounds, infecting each and every one of the shoppers. Whether they realize it or not, these dedicated gardeners and farmers from across the state of Maine and beyond─will carry that feeling home with them and plant it in the soil with the trees and shrubs and other plants. That’s the kind of feeling that provokes us into action; the kind of thing that inspires others to follow our lead and so spreads throughout a community. That’s the kind of thing we need more of in this crazy, mixed up society and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Check out the Fedco website and be sure to call to order their catalogs so that you too have access to great cold-hardy varieties, heritage fruit trees and organic supplies for your farm or gardens!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!