Garden Muse

Exchange Rates

Story by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist. Photos by Bill Sherrod.


Bring home treasures from a community plant exchange and get the whole neighborhood involved in green projects.

Spread some colorful cheer this year — share the fruits of your toil in the soil.

One of the great things about gardening is that plants multiply, so after only a short while, it is time to divide them and share with others.

Consider organizing a plant exchange or a sale for your neighborhood, school, church or civic association. Arrange a planting “bee” for a friend’s housewarming to personalize and beautify the landscape. Throw a perennial plant shower for the bride-to-be who already has plenty of kitchen gadgets, or host a tea to observe and celebrate the annual return of a favorite stunning flower. 

My friend Sheri used to host an annual rite of spring that everyone eagerly anticipated — her Daphne Party. She had a magnificent daphne odora planted in apparently the perfect spot — in dappled sunlight with excellent drainage and protection from wind — and its blossoms perfumed the area on all sides of it in at least a 30-foot radius.

One of the many things we thought charming about the party is that the hostess could not set the date very far in advance because Mother Nature was the only one who knew exactly when her perfect party decoration would reveal itself. A cold snap might delay the opening or an early warming could move it up. The date to come pay homage to the gorgeous plant, inhale its intoxicating fragrance, and sip tea in English bone china would unfold in Nature’s own good time and not a minute sooner.

Mother Nature teaches us patience that way. The first plumped buds opening meant it was time for Sheri to run out and mail the pre-addressed invitations. Of course, we all knew the invitation would be coming and it was eagerly anticipated. That is a beauty of perennial plants — each one has its moment of glory in the garden, which makes us look forward to that time with the fullest appreciation. 

A Springtime Garden Party

Favorite plants such as this evergreen Heuchera "Autumn Bride" can be exchanged for fun or profit for your local school or community association.

Getting together in a garden sparks interesting conversation and yields the fruit of shared gardening advice. Especially beneficial is the knowledge gained from older, more experienced gardeners who are willing to share their wealth. If you throw a party in early spring when everyone is preparing their gardens, ask each person attending to bring a favorite plant division and draw names for an exchange.

You might also ask the guests to bring a photo of what the plant looks like in bloom with any tips for cultivation. When my former neighbor Sarah married and moved to her house, she was given a Flower Shower where each friend brought a favorite perennial for her new home. Sarah bought plant markers and put the name of the plant on one side and the name of her donor friend on the other. No matter what the name of the plant is, however, it assumes the name of the one who gave it, so that every year the spirit of friendship grows, literally, in Donna’s primroses or Betty’s asters.

Sarah and I discovered that we had the same wonderful old-fashioned plants in our 1920s-vintage gardens: Sweet Betsy, rose campion, hardy glads, beautyberry, and spiderwort. We realized this was because the original owner and her best friend/next-door-neighbor had divided their plants over the years and shared them all. The ladies had even insisted that the postman deliver the mail for both addresses to one house because they opened it over their shared afternoon cup of coffee. There was a wide walk connecting the side yards through a marvelous old iron gate that always remained open — symbolic, we just knew, of the feel-good karma that had passed back and forth for decades. 

Exchange Seeds in Fall or Winter

If you want to have a party in fall or winter, host a seed exchange. Harvesting seeds to share is a great way to leave a part of yourself in a friend’s garden.

One of gardening’s most passionate eccentrics, Miss Ellen Willmott (friend of Gertrude Jekyll), kept seeds of the gray sea holly Eryngium giganteum in her pocket and would scatter them around people’s gardens when nobody was watching. She was probably right (although a bit controlling) in thinking that most gardens would benefit from the plant’s pale-gray color and interesting texture. As ghostly silver flower heads began to appear magically in gardens Ellen Willmott had visited, the apt common name “Miss Willmott’s Ghost” began to circulate as well.

Money plant, celosia, and hyacinth bean vine or any of your favorites will be appreciated. When making out the invitations, you could include Miss Willmott’s story or a poem about flowers. A favorite quote of mine is Emerson’s, “Earth laughs in flowers.” Bulbs can be exchanged at almost any time of the year. My friend Betty recently gave out small oxalis bulbs as favors at her daughter Liz’s wedding; now every spring their blooms will spark fond memories of our shared joy and Liz’s flowers.

Bring home your plant goodies.

Young children can be taught the value of recycling and the miracle of life, and if hands-on parents don’t mind getting those hands a bit dirty, funds can be raised for school, church, or any community project with a plant exchange.

If dividing established perennials to sell, dig them 2-3 weeks in advance so they’ll have time to perk back up. Young children can even grow some of the plants for sale in recycled milk cartons from the cafeteria.  Nasturtium and four-o’clocks seeds are easy for little hands to handle. A favorite perennial plant for children to divide is wooly lamb’s ear for its soft, tactile quality. 

Potting soil can get expensive, so ask around to see if anyone has abundant leaf compost (“gardener’s gold”) to use as a planting medium. 

Novices may get turned on to gardening when exposed to its surprises. At a school-sponsored plant sale during my children’s elementary days, our committee had been given several young crape myrtles, late bloomers that are dormant in spring. One patron bought a poor pitiful stick just because she felt sorry for it and called it her Charlie Brown Tree, only to be thrilled in summer when it erupted into masses of hot-pink blooms.

For years since, Anella has told me over and over how thrilled they are each summer to remember that introduction to gardening. So start your own feel-good event and reap the benefits for years to come.

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond , Va. , where she runs her design business, Imagine That.


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