Kitsap Roots

Gather. Share. Grow.

How to Host a Plant Swap

There is one fact about gardening that is important to understand: Plants are designed to grow and multiply. Whether it is a seasonal annual or hardy perennial, a plant's whole purpose is to make new plants and grow. It's pretty simple, right? Today I am going to share with you how understanding how plants grow can lead to a yard full of free plants through the wonderful world of plant swaps.

I was introduced to plant swaps about nine years ago. We were living in Redmond, WA, and my church hosted a parking lot plant swap. At the time, our second-floor walk-up only had a small shady balcony where I could keep a couple of plants...I had no plants to swap. But, based on the encouragement of my friend and avid gardener, Sandi, I went, armed with bags of spent coffee grounds from the Starbucks where I was a barista.

The organizers had done a good job advertising the event on local gardening club pages, and about a dozen different people came ready to swap. The parking lot was lined with open car trunks full of potted plants, mulch, boxes of raspberry canes and so much more. It was an incredible day! All of the participants were eager to share, and not just their plants. They were eager to share their knowledge. I ended up leaving that day with a few small plants and a one foot tall Japanese Maple sapling. I was overjoyed!

The next year I went again to the same plant swap and ended up with another Japanese maple and even more plants to try. All. For. FREE! I'll be honest, it felt weird going to these events without something to swap and leaving with a carload of loot, but let me remind you of what I said before, plants grow and multiply.

The average established garden has the ongoing chore of dividing perennials, deadheading plants that have gone to seed and pruning back groundcovers that have grown out of bounds. Where do most of these trimmings go? Well, often they go in the garbage and compost. As someone who has had to cut back my garden and had it go in the compost, I can attest to how heartbreaking that can be. These are plants with roots and a chance of growing into a new beautiful mature plant, but it just doesn't have a good spot in my landscape. That's where garden swaps come to play. Gardeners love to share.

Does this sound like a great thing to you? Do you want to expand your garden for free, but aren't a part of an established garden club where this kind of activity is common? Well, today I am going to walk you through the simple steps of hosting a plant swap.

 Plants to swap

Step 1: Decide what kind of swap you want.

There are so many different kinds of swaps you could have. Do you want to host a seed swap in the spring? How about a perennial plant swap in the fall. Or what about a harvest swap where you share heirloom tomatoes and have a workshop on how to properly harvest and overwinter the seeds? The opportunities are endless.

It's important to be clear with your audience that there are ground rules for these events. Instruct them only to bring healthy plants that are weed free, and pest free. No one wants to burden another gardener's space with new problems.

Step 2: Pick your swap season.

These events can happen year round, but I find that fall and early spring are the best time to host a plant and seed swap. Fall swaps are great because the plants are dying back for the season, they divide well, and will survive our Pacific Northwest rainy winters quite well without much attention from you. Right now is a great time to throw together a little event.

Step 3: Post invites

There are a few things to consider when inviting guests. First, I recommend inviting people at different stages of their gardening life. If you have a bunch of novice garden enthusiasts, they will likely show up empty handed or with a bag of spent coffee grounds. And if all of your guests have established gardens, they will probably reject taking any new plants merely because they're out of space in their landscape.

Step 4: Watch the Weather

You need to make sure that everyone participating in the swap will have time to get their hands dirty in their yards. The timing for uprooting plants or harvesting seeds depends a lot on the weather. Last spring I tried hosting a swap, but the weather just wasn't conducive to doing yard work, and we had to postpone the swap. I am to the point now where I pot up plants throughout the year, so if a plant swap came on my radar on short notice, I could quickly pack up a bundle of goodies to share.

Step 5: Swap!

Here is a list of things that are good to have on hand at a swap:

  • cardboard to protect cars and transport plants
  • nursery pots of varying size
  • dirt and compost to pot up the young plants on site
  • plant tags and pens
  • envelopes to store seeds
  • clean shears and small garden tools
  • cleaning solution for tools

You, as the host, could provide these items or you can instruct the participants to come prepared with their own. Also, be clear with all the participants if you expect them to take home anything that wasn't swapped. I made the mistake of not doing this in my first neighborhood swap and ended up keeping a bulk of the plants that were brought. Now, if you have an empty landscape, as I did, it's not a bad thing. I would say that 75% of my current garden is full of plants that I received through plant swaps. Growing a landscape this way takes time, and there is a steep learning curve involved, but I love my garden. It's my classroom, and every season I try new things and learn as I grow.

If hosting a big event seems like a big undertaking, you can do what I did this week. I had a free morning come up today and offered to help my friend in her garden. She is a beginner and was eager for guidance. We spent three hours dividing perennials and rearranging one of her garden beds. I blessed her with knowledge and direction for her garden design, and in return, she gifted me a car full of plants. It was a win-win for both of us.

The moral of this story is that sharing plants if fun. Give it a try.

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