Bring what you got: Plant Swap time

Savannah Morning News column

March 29, 2015

What will it be this time? What will arrive that will knock our socks off? A stag horn fern the size of Connecticut? A baby persimmon tree or better yet maybe a pomegranate? That would make me happy. Maybe some young purslane seedlings – my new favorite green to grow and eat – ready to pop into the garden. I know there must be someone out there who has them potted up and ready to go. That is the question for professional and novice plant-swappers, every spring, every fall. That is always the question at Savannah’s biannual plant swaps. This year the Saturday spring swap, which is always the first Saturday of April (and October) falls between Friday night’s Passover Seder and Sunday’s Easter celebration. The quintessential trifecta of events, spiritual, ritual and earthy. All festivals of a sort.

“Life is about balance and eating well.” I just read this on a can of gluten free French onion soup from Wolfgang Puck. To that I would add the act of sharing, sharing what we have, sharing what we have too much of, sharing stories, sharing warnings (“This plant is after world domination. As long as you know that you will get along just fine.”). That is what the plant swaps have become. Part bragging, part swagger, part acquisition. Maybe I should change acquisition to greed. Because that’s part of what makes up a gardener. We always want something more or something different. That’s who we are. It’s in our DNA.

But when a plant does well and exceeds its allotted space – can you say Mexican petunias? – we face a conundrum. To rip it out of the ground and compost it or give it away, maybe to someone who just moved to town and isn’t sure what grows and what doesn’t, maybe to someone who has a whole field to fill up? Either way it’s time to say bye-bye, Mexican petunia, and, if we’re going to be honest, to offer warnings. Keep an eye on this plant or you won’t have room for anything else.

That’s the question we growers of perennials pondered some 18 years ago when we decided to get together and swap our good fortune. How much walking iris does one person need? Once you have a successful pot of billbergia or queen’s tears (and I’m here to tell you: that non-complaining plant does reproduce), you want to share the booty. At last year’s fall swap, there must have been a dozen rooted stalks of this epiphytic bromeliad left behind, which is a shame because this plant is the master of neglect. This beauty can survive mostly anything (except too much attention).

The same thing applies to swamp sunflowers. They personify the nickname of our swaps:  “invasive by nature.” That’s why we love them. That’s what some anonymous person must have been thinking when he or she dropped off a flat of itty-bitty starts on my then-Tattnall Street house. She called them green monsters. I’m brave. I’m intrepid. I planted them. Then I found out how tall they get, how beautiful they look in the fall when there’s not very much color left in the garden, what a good cut-flower they can be. But now I can recognize them in their baby stages. Now I can pass them along.

The same with my umbrella flatsedge. Easy to root. Easy to give away.

The plant swaps have become down and dirty. People arrive early, some dragging Radio Flyers filled to the brim, some pulling up to the garden with their pickup truck to unload, some with a bowl of oranges or homemade coffee cake or fresh donuts to share if they are new to gardening or new to town and want to come with something to give away.

We operate on the honor system. Take some, leave some for others, leave your money at home. We welcome seeds, tubers, roots, starts and hand-written notes (we love hand-written notes) about where the plant came from. We like information on bees and vermicomposting. We encourage warnings (“invasive by nature”), but we’re a forgiving bunch because if the ipomoea quamoclit or cypress vine gets away from us (and it will, just so you know) we know what to do with it: bring it to the fall plant swap.

The plant swap is at my garden on West Boundary Street. There is no street address. It sits between Chatham Steel (501 W. Boundary) and Creative Coast (415 W. Boundary St). Need more information? Call me at 912-484-3045 or check out our Facebook page, Savannah Plant Swap.


Making my way through Santa Fe

Savannah Morning News Sunday column

March 22, 2015

If you can’t be in Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day you can at least live stream Bishop Kevin Boland’s spirited singing, the traditional beginning to the parade. Totally rad, a friend says, hat and all. There’s not much green in Santa Fe but that’s not what this New Mexico town is about. Here it’s all narrow streets, mostly one-story adobe houses (mud, sand and water and hefty price tags) with soft rounded corners, strings of red peppers on the door fronts, handsome wrought iron fences decorated by some crazy dancing figures with their hair on fire, heavy raw lumber timbers, turquoise skies and rose hues (accented by orange and gold), and the intriguing coyote fences in front of most homes, narrow timbers of spruce, fir or cedar tied together vertically leaving a random edge on top. Maybe they’re a fashion statement now but initially they really were designed to keep coyotes away from pets.

Probably a good idea (although I haven’t hear about coyotes in the city) because I’ve never seen more dogs in one town (inside coffee shops, on the walking trails, in front of houses, in cars, in bars, on sidewalks, in patios) or more people talking to dogs, some better behaved than others.

I’ve never seen so many older women with so much gray (really white) hair, either, mostly long and artfully draped. These women are embracing their vintage years.

My landmarks are a “river” bed (a sign says it  “flows” to the Rio Grande, except right now I’m seeing a very dry and rocky arroyo or creek) and a distant mountain peak topped with snow.

Laundry dries rapidly on outdoor clotheslines in the dry Santa Fe air. The night skies are bright with stars. I overheard some hiker enjoying a latte in the Better Day Coffee Shop say the elderberries are starting to leaf out. And should you need it, a woman is set up in the Montanita Coop, my closest food source, to read your aura. The Coop is selling tatsoi seedlings for $2.95 and offering five minute massages. A few years ago “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin bought the eclectic Jean Cocteau Cinema, a sweet 128-seat theater that used to be a brewery and now has a 35 mm film projector and a strange line-up of poetry, old movies and once a night a week a marathon showing of, you guessed it, “Game of Thrones.”  That man is enjoying himself, too.

The theater is near the joyful Saturday Santa Fe Farmers Market, where I buy tasty sprouts from the sprout lady, Susan Higgins, who moved here from Vermont decades ago, and I talk with the owner of The Shrimp Farm. Really? I say. Shrimp?  They’re farm-raised, of course, and pretty tasty. Only $18 a pound. I smiled and moved on to a breakfast burrito of red and green chiles.

Santa Fe has four bookstores, two Whole Foods outlets, one Trader Joe’s, a chain of New Mexico grocery stores called Sprouts, a nifty café called Counter Culture and a yearly Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival (where I overheard one woman say to another, “So tell me, do you know where I can get a frozen gefilte fish?”). All of this for a town of 69,000.

The best road trip so far has been to Bandelier National Monument, home to the ancient Paleoindian hunters some 11,000 years ago, followed by the Pueblo people. Days after visiting the site I ventured into the impressive Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse on the corner of Galisteo and Waters streets near the Plaza. The first book to catch my eye, displayed on the front counter, was Willia Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I’ve tried and never had much luck with Willa Cather. But this time was different. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the book’s cover, a painting of the canyons I had just visited. The artist was Marsden Hartley, a Maine-born painter who hung around with Georgia O’Keeffe and spent time in the Southwest. He died in 1943, four years before Cather.

I bought the book. It’s riveting. Walking around Santa Fe it I feel like I should be riding my mule, the way Cather’s Father Jean Marie Latour and another Catholic priest did in 1851 as they made their way into the vast and treacherous undiscovered territory of Mexicans and Indians. This is a strange and new country to me. The woo-woo part is fine. I like sprouts. I like burritos. But I have a feeling the best part is out in the red hills under a bank of inky black clouds, ext to a rushing river. Never underestimate the value of a good book cover.