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.


After this winter? Come to the plant swap

Savannah Morning News column

Sun., March 16, 2014

Wait! Be patient! Don’t give up yet!

I know it’s tempting (you can’t stand the way the yard looks). I know it’s mouth-watering (who doesn’t like preparing for a clean slate and starting over?). I know it’s seductive (brown: get thee behind me). I know it’s alluring (snip-snip, says the clippers, just waiting for you to pick them up; snip-snip, says Conrad’s mother in The Tiger Lillies’ song from “Shockheaded Peter,” a very, very dark Off-Broadway play).

But don’t do it. Not yet. Use a little restraint. Go out into the yard and rake a little instead: that’s satisfying. Turn the compost pile and count the worms (or go fishing with those little red wrigglers). Clean the chicken coop — if you can get your broody hens to move without a major kafuffle (good luck on that one). Better yet, find a chair, lean your head back into your old friend, the sun, and catch a few vitamin D rays before it’s too hot and she’s not your friend anymore.

Finally, before you do anything drastic, before you snip-snip those brittle and weak limbs (there’s no Scotch-tape in gardening), try the fingernail test. Scratch the stalk ever so slightly and look for green, look for life. You might be surprised at what’s hiding, what’s hibernating, just waiting for a little warmth before deciding to pop out.

Or maybe you’re perfectly happy to get rid of the oleander; I know I am. I never liked it anyway. I just don’t like cutting down a tree. Maybe this is the perfect time to say sayonara to the brugmansia (or angel’s trumpet) that has come to take up so much room in your limited real estate of a garden. Now you no longer have to debate over the sprawling, labor-intensive, bushy umbrella flat sedge that is such a pain in the neck to cut back every spring (except it will come back; that’s one hardy plant).

The good news is you’re not alone. Maybe you scrambled to cover your plants and beat the frost, maybe you didn’t. Some people who dragged out the sheets and did the responsible thing say it didn’t matter. The fact it, things still died because this was a doozy of a winter.

Which means come Sat., April 5, we’re going to have a doozy of a plant swap.

Without looking too hard, here’s what I have to share: beach daisy (a no-fail ground cover I mow over, forget about, and plant around by mistake); swamp sunflowers (another no-fail, towering plant that blooms yellow in October and seems to have come through the frost with no trouble at all once I cut away all the crunchy upper-level debris); a potted amaryllis whose tongue of a stalk is growing two- or three-inches a day; some hardy umbrella flat sedge roots; tons of yarrow (good for stanching bleeding wounds, don’t you know, just in case), that stays a lovely shade of green summer and winter and is supposed to speed up the compost process, according to Rudolf Steiner and his theory of biodynamics.

In case anyone is interested I might be interested in sharing some stinging nettle. But beware. It will sting. Stinging nettle, I’ve decided, might just be my dream cash crop. It popped up a few years ago in some horse manure I got from the city stables. I swore at it for the first few years. Then I learned to embrace it. If those stinging, hypodermic-like hairs on the marijuana-look-alike leaves aren’t good for something – arthritis? cancer? depression? — I’ll eat my words – or at least some stinging nettle, which, harvested and cooked down, is not bad at all. Trouble is, like a lot of greens – can you say spinach? – once you start cooking, it disappears, boom, gone, reduced to a fraction of what you picked. Still, I’m collecting it, giving it a bed of its own and planning for my retirement years.

I’m anxious to see what people bring this year, what made it through the hard times. Usually we’re inundated with stuff. This year? I’m not so sure. Even the ubiquitous, wall-to-wall, indefatigable bed of ferns looks a little dicey.

But the sad-looking citrus and pathetic pomegranate? I’m seeing new itty-bitty leaves, full of life.

Instead of plants we might have a bumper crop of brunch food, which is what we encourage people to bring if they’re new to the game known as plant swapping, if they don’t have any roots, rhizomes, bulbs or seeds to share. Stories work, too. We love stories.

Plant swap information: Jane Fishman’s West Boundary street garden between Chatham Steel (501 W. Boundary St.) and SCAD’s Boundary Hall. It’s free. It’s open. It’s fun. Call 912-484-3045 with questions.