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You can never plant too many flowers

Through the Garden Gate: Enjoy this slideshow from the Amish flower auction near Dalton, Wis.

For the past decade, I have been on a quest to find the prettiest baskets of flowers while saving as much money as possible catering to my flower obsession.

I used to buy my flowers every spring at garden centers at Ace Hardware, Fleet Farm, Menard’s and Stein Gardens. Then a friend of mine suggested I check out the Amish greenhouses 20 to 25 miles west of where I live in Brandon, Wis.

The first couple of years I bought flowers from the Amish, I was content to go from greenhouse to greenhouse, comparing prices and inventory, before purchasing six or seven baskets at one or two establishments. About a dozen Amish greenhouses are scattered between Kingston and Dalton in Green Lake County, Wis. Some are established facilities that operate year-round. But several are located on farms and are no more than a couple of hoop houses used only in the spring to house and sell annual flowers and flower baskets.

Many of these greenhouses are staffed by a farm couple and several children, who operate the cash registers and gladly carry the plants to your vehicle. After my first visit to an Amish greenhouse, I was hooked. I shared my discovery with several of my friends.

After a couple of years of flower shopping at Amish greenhouses, someone asked if I had ever bought flowers at the Amish produce auction and recommended that I check it out. The auctions are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the last week of April and the entire month of May at the Tri-County Produce Auction Co-op, located at N1046 County Highway H, Dalton, WI 53926. Auctions are held in a large pavilion, about the size of a football field, filled to the brim with annual flowers. The auctions start at 11 a.m. sharp and last about two hours.

You register and get a number when you arrive. It’s best to go early so you have time to check out what’s available. A couple of hundred people usually attend each auction, including Amish farmers, greenhouse owners and buyers who have booths at farmers markets. About a third of those buying flowers at the auction are women like me looking to get deals on baskets full of gorgeous flowers.

Buy with caution

Auctions aren’t for the faint of heart. You have to be daring enough to bid on what you want, but you also need to know your limits. I usually check out one or two Amish greenhouses before going to the auction to see what their prices are. Several Amish greenhouse owners buy and sell flowers at the auctions too. This year, I skipped the greenhouses and went straight to the produce auction. A friend had told me two weeks earlier that she paid $23 for 10-inch plastic baskets filled with flowers at an Amish greenhouse.

At the auction, flower baskets are sold in lots of 10, 11 or 12 baskets each, which means when you are bidding on a basket, you are agreeing to pay that amount for each basket in the lot.

This year, I decided I would pay a maximum of $18 for a 10-inch basket. I figured if they went for more than that, it was too much because I could get the same basket of flowers of my choice at a greenhouse for $23, and I could buy as many as I wanted.

Normally when I attend an auction to buy flowers, I bid on several lots before I purchase flowers because I am usually outbid. But this year, I bid on the first lot of 11 baskets. The auctioneer opened the bidding, and a man started the bidding at $9 per basket. I bid $10 and figured he would bid $11, and I would have to decide if I was going to bid $12 or not. But instead, after I made my bid, nobody else made a bid, so I literally purchased the first lot of flowers I bid on. On top of that, I spent only $116, including tax — a record low for me!

I took my flowers home and filled several wicker baskets, two large decorative pots and an old washtub I bought at a garage sale several years ago. I sold two baskets of flowers to a friend of mine, lowering the amount I spent to $95.

In the past few years, several of my friends have discovered the joy of buying their flowers at the Amish auctions and greenhouses. I enjoy the process of buying the flowers. But being able to sit on my front porch and admire their beauty all spring and summer is priceless!

Comments? Email fran.oleary@farmprogress.com.

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