Diggin' Florida Dirt: Plant swap parties are a gardener's dream

Plant swaps have gained popularity in recent years as a way to grow gardens, garden knowledge and community. Virginia Overstreet, a Hillsborough County Master Gardener, hauls her contributions to a Tampa swap in 2012.
Plant swaps have gained popularity in recent years as a way to grow gardens, garden knowledge and community. Virginia Overstreet, a Hillsborough County Master Gardener, hauls her contributions to a Tampa swap in 2012.
Published Aug. 4, 2016

Amy Belnone brought edible chaya and longevity spinach cuttings from Largo. Petra Taylor came with impossible-to-kill pink and cream vinca from her Belleair Bluffs garden. Vicki Parsons hauled a box of ripe Seminole pumpkins all the way from Brandon.

They came to Safety Harbor last month to give away some of their favorite plants to friends and strangers — for free. Except for the air conditioning, the swap was just like the parties our forebears relied on to grow their gardens with pass-along seeds and cuttings, hand-me-down advice and lots of good food and laughter.

Plant swaps have made a comeback in the past decade, thanks to the Internet. Invitations shared on Facebook and other social media draw people from far-flung communities. They spread local horticultural heritage, build community by drawing out even the shyest gardeners and, some say, increase property values by connecting neighbors and improving landscapes.

New gardeners get help in establishing gardens and even veteran Florida gardeners discover new-to-them plants.

"I absolutely find things I've never heard of," says Vicki Parsons, owner of Neem Tree Farms in Brandon and a Florida native who knows a thing or five about gardening here.

From the July event in Safety Harbor, she took home a Cuban oregano — "I've been looking for it and I finally got one" — and a double blue butterfly pea plant. "I never heard of a double! It's gorgeous!"

For the many newcomers who come to Florida from somewhere else, swaps can be the surprisingly easy answer to all kinds of prayers.

Donna McAvene moved to Sun City Center two years ago from Virginia and has been to a half-dozen swaps. She looks perfectly happy sitting alone on a couch in hostess Tanja Vlidovic's living room, watching toddlers devour vegan chickpea chocolate pudding with aquafaba meringue from the table laden with potluck vegetarian dishes.

"I'm a wallflower," she says, smiling. "But the people at these swaps are so generous and so nice. I had never heard of edible landscaping, sustainability — we grew beans, potatoes and corn in Virginia. I'll be 70 this year, and this is like a whole new lease on life."

Every plant swap has its own rules. Some, like Tanja's, have no rules. But you can't go wrong bringing something to give if you plan to bring something home — it's just good manners.

A few ideas to get started

• If you're not online, you need to be.

You may find swaps in the Tampa Bay Times garden calendar, which runs Sundays in the HomeLink section, or in publications like Florida Gardening magazine. But your best bet is Facebook and other social media. I like the Facebook group Tampa Gardening Swap, which is Tampa Bay-oriented and run by Tanja. Find online swapping (seeds, etc., exchanged by mail) on Facebook at Plant Swappers USA.

• To throw a swap, create an event on Facebook and make your own rules.

• Advertise your swap by creating an event on Facebook and sharing it with everyone you want to invite. People may ask if they can share it with others — that's up to you. Some organizers open the doors to everyone, whether or not they bring something to share. Some create tickets — you get one for every plant you bring and take home only an equal amount. Still others have guests pull numbers and play a game of selecting and trading. You decide.

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• Include ID and growing instructions for every plant, seed or cutting you bring.

I like to know what I'm planting, whether it needs full sun or shade, and whether it can grow huge or become a crazy vine. Some swappers put seeds in envelopes with computer printouts of what the plant looks like and growing instructions. They may attach a marker with the plant name or a handwritten sign. But not everyone feels the need to label and some gardeners love mystery plants so — once again — it's up to you.

The real prize

Who doesn't love free plants? But learning may be the even greater value of swaps. Fellow gardeners young and old can teach us a lot about the quirky needs of individual species.

Bring a pen and notepad and take notes. And be sure to spend time with the wallflower in the couch. You'll be glad you did.