Got a plant you’d like others to know and grow? Need a way to spread it around?
A friend of mine set up a neighborhood herbary, like those little corner bookstores cropping up everywhere. He planted rosemary, oregano and hot peppers near the street and sometimes puts out bagged seeds and trays of seedlings and invites folks to help themselves. Can’t you see kids setting up herb, seed and cut-flower stands, with lemonade?
The most common approach is through plant swaps. Quite a few years back, celebrated folk writer Eudora Welty confided to me and a friend over supper that her mother stopped going to the garden club when they stopped swapping plants at the meetings. And we understood; my great-grandmother complained in her 1950s diary that few others seemed to share her love of oddball plants like the now-popular but then-new Clara Curtis mum.
So 31 years ago, when Janis Watkins, the librarian in tiny Flora, Mississippi, put the word out that she was hosting a free plant swap, I jumped on the opportunity to participate in the small-town gathering of people of all ranges of expertise and ability, from bemused horticulturists to clueless newbies, of all ages, ethnic and social backgrounds.
Like a potluck buffet, the simple venue brought out the social creature in even timid folks in a safe, no-one’s-a-stranger setting. Neighbors and strangers alike brought in pots and plastic bags of freshly-dug small shrubs, herb seedlings, bulbs, divided perennials, rooted cuttings and unusual potted heirlooms, creating a smorgasbord of people and plants. Nobody looked at what anyone was wearing so much as what they carried in their hands.
See, plants are great levelers. They don’t care where you’re from, who your mama ‘n them are, how you worship or vote. They just want to be given their places in the sun (or shade) and to be spread and enjoyed far and wide.
There are two easy approaches to organize the chaos of a plant swap, and both can be done with face masks and social distancing. The organizers of PlantSwap UK, the oldest continuous plant swap in England, start their informal swap with the announcement to “get what you want, not too much, be courteous, and have fun.” And everyone pretty much does just that, with lots of convivial sharing and talking, a relaxed, informal mix of unusual plants and unusual people.
The one at the Flora library is a bit more organized. As plants are brought in and lined up, each has a number taped to it. To kick off the swap someone talks a bit about the plant diversity, maybe asks about particular plants (who brought it, what do you call it, how does it grow, will it freeze outside, etc.). Then a basket is passed around from which participants draw numbers to see which plant they get — like it or not. The real swapping goes on later in the parking lot where extra plants are stashed.
I see the evidence of swapped plants in the countless hundreds of people who now grow Eudora’s night-blooming cereus, my great-grandmother’s chrysanthemum and my own rooted roses. Those and countless others will continue to survive and, as they are spread far and wide outside the normal commercial channels, connect people hand-to-hand.
Over the next few weeks I will be driving my garden truck around the state, conducting a series of these unique socio — horticultural free-for-alls. If you’d like to participate in one, go to my blog and see where the nearest will be to you.
If you can’t make one, spread the word, start one yourself.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]