This  Saturday, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens once again invites the public to decorate their homes or dorm rooms with flowers and trees as part of the annual fall plant sale. But few know how the plant sale can help students develop skills in horticulture. 

The Duke Gardens’ plant sales, which take place once in the spring and again in the fall, have drawn impressive crowds to the grounds in the past. 

“At last fall’s sale, we had 577 people come through," said Beth Hall, who coordinates this year’s event. "Our turnout is getting larger every year, which is so exciting for us."

Although the sale is advertised on billboards around the gardens as well as online, it is not common knowledge that the sale’s revenue directly contributes to the financing of the paid summer internships in horticulture offered by the premises. Each year, four students, typically biology, botany, horticulture or related majors, get a chance to closely work with staff and gain exposure to the daily tasks required to maintain the botanic gardens’ iconic appearance, preparing them for future careers in the field. Several former interns have gone on to join the Gardens as full-time staff members.  

Those who are particularly eager to secure the most beautiful plants have the opportunity to participate in a members-only preview sale one hour ahead of the official opening by joining “Friends of Duke Gardens.” Apart from a 10 percent discount on all purchases, educational events and a full plant list sent out in advance, the membership also guarantees admission privileges and reduced prices at more than 300 participating gardens in the United States, Canada, the Cayman and Virgin Islands.  

Nestled between the gothic elegance of West Campus and the calmer residences of Central Campus, the Gardens is often heralded as the secret highlight of an already beautiful college setting. Its vast lawns, rich flowerbeds and thickset allées grant an oasis of peace amidst the hordes of stressed students in sweatpants and flip-flops. Dedicated in 1939 after Ellen Biddle Shipman had redesigned the space, the Gardens have since served as a cherished connecting piece between the somewhat isolated bubble of Duke and the wider Durham community. Its activities include academic resources, events and programs for children and adults alike.

Hurricane Florence, which had rushed over the Carolinas just a week ago, took its toll on the Gardens. Although Durham was left relatively unscathed, the gardens, which is usually open 365 days a year, had been forced to close for a short time, as some paths had been washed out, Hall said. 

“Fortunately, we didn’t see the winds or heavy flooding other parts of the state did, and the plants for the sale are all still growing happily in the nursery,” she said. 

Worries about the sale being canceled due to weather conditions, however, are unfounded. According to the Gardens website, “The sale will proceed rain or shine.”

The Gardens will remain open for the rest of the year and give visitors an opportunity to devour the fauna’s seasonal changes in color and shape. 

“We hear from people who have been coming to Duke Gardens their whole lives," Hall wrote in an email. "Our volunteers and visitors have a wide range of backgrounds from across the university, Durham and the world."

To take full advantage of the Duke Gardens’ Fall Plant Sale, students should prepare to get up early on Saturday – the first 100 of them who arrive after 9 a.m. with a valid Duke ID will receive a free air plant. 

“We did it last year, and it was a big hit," said Orla Swift, the director of marketing and communications. "Great for dorms!”