by Lou Mancinelli
If you’ve got a green thumb, or want one, and you’re willing to share, the Mt. Airy-based group Philly Garden Swap can be your teachers and nursery.
Maybe you already have a garden, but want to add some black-eyed Susan, lamb’s ear, Shasta daisies or mountain phlox and petunias. The three-year old group holds plant exchanges twice each fall and twice in the summer, where neighbors and botanical enthusiasts meet and trade greenery of all varieties from their own gardens.
When founder Ricardo Jefferson, a Michigan-born Philadelphia attorney moved to Germantown in 2006, he left behind a neighborhood tradition of neighbors digging up the roots of their own plants to split and exchange them with one another. It saved money, it built community and it made the neighborhood look nicer.
“When I moved – because I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood – I didn’t really have any ties,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t feel comfortable knocking on the neighbors’ door saying ‘can I have some of this’”?
At the same time, he thought it was insane that anyone should pay the high prices at a nursery for flowers that are so prolific in the area. But because Jefferson was rootless in Philadelphia, he spent the money and bought the flowers.
Ostrich fern by wood poppy, by sedum, by anemones – plant-by-plant – Jefferson began to develop his garden. His enthusiasm for horticulture and garden design inspired him to create a well-planned garden. But because he was new to town, Jefferson wondered how he could meet other community members interested in gardening who might like the idea of trading roots.
He said he figured that the Internet would be a good tool to get people thinking about plants and trading. What he had in mind at first would be similar to a Craigslist discussion page, where people could post about specific varieties and ask questions. But that idea expanded into people wanting to trade their greenery one-on-one. That inspired Jefferson to create the swap gatherings and to create a sense of community.
“I stumbled upon one of Ricardo’s first plant swaps outside the Weaver’s Way Co-op [in Mt. Airy in 2008],” said local botany enthusiast Eric Sternfels, who organized this year’s Mt. Airy Learning Tree Hidden Gardens Tour that attracted a record 129 people. “I thought the concept was a really smart idea.”
At the swap, Sternfels ran into a number of people he had already gardened with through Friends of Ned Wolf Park, a group of neighbors dedicated to maintaining and improving a city park at McCallum and West Ellet streets in West Mt. Airy.
The swaps turn into events, he said. People meet other community members with similar interests. They talk about different varieties and successes or troubles they have had in their own gardens as a result of their balance between sunlight and shade.
Even if your knowledge of horticulture is as bare as your garden, if you have the curiosity, the members of the Philly Garden Swap have the time.
“The people who tend to gravitate to the plant swap are often the people with the least amount of knowledge about plants,” Sternfels said. “They say, ‘I have a lot of shade, but I don’t know what to do.’ We ask them how much shade and for how many hours a day. Depending on your gardening experience, it can change what you can plant in the shade or the sun.”
Lots of times people chance upon the swaps, hosted at the Allen’s Lane Train Station, and are drawn in by the table of plants. While the idea is to bring a plant, and swap with others, first-timers are encouraged to come and participate, and eventually, they, too, will be able to share. Often, people bring plants from their yards but are unsure of the variety. But chances are, someone at the swap will know.
Over the past decade, Sternfels has transformed himself from a man who knew only a little about gardens into a botanist who knows as much about what to plant and when, and making sure flowers or plants get the right amount of shade and sunlight for the right amount of hours, as you might expect from a college-educated horticulturist.
Like Jefferson, Sternfels’ knowledge comes from experience: from planting and seeing what happens, trying new things, observing, reading botanical books and browsing the Internet for information.
Aside from building community, and increasing the green culture of the area, plant swapping has its benefits. When you split the roots of your flowers and plants, a process that is as simple as sticking a spade or shovel into the root and collecting an intact piece that includes stems and flowers, some species propagate.
Perennials are especially good for splitting and sharing each year. But for something like astilbe, a bigger piece of woody shrubbery that grows in increments, gardeners may have to wait two or three years before its root can be split, according to Sternfels.
While Jefferson knows his project could add to the beauty of the area, one flower by one flower, and contribute to local sustainability, his mission focuses just as much on bringing community members together.
“They don’t need to have a compost,” Jefferson said. “We’re not asking people to become vegans. I’m just a regular guy without training, who is interested in natural observation about what is around me. We can give you the [horticultural] knowledge, and once you have the knowledge, you have the knowledge.”
For more information visit www.phillygardenswap.org.