Plant swap is a bloomin' success

Liz Rassweiler and Sara Mae Berman exchange tips during a plant swap on Fayette Park in Cambridge last weekend. Neighbors gather twice yearly to exchange things they have grown. Spotted at this swap was the Rudbeckia triloba (above). Liz Rassweiler and Sara Mae Berman exchange tips during a plant swap on Fayette Park in Cambridge last weekend. Neighbors gather twice yearly to exchange things they have grown. Spotted at this swap was the Rudbeckia triloba (above). (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)
By Katie Liesener
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2008
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Renters come and go. Homeowners rush from car to front door. Neighbors are often strangers. But in one Cambridge neighborhood, the plants are continually making house calls.

Here, Alison's lilac bush lives in Nancy's old yard. Helen's geraniums bloom bubblegum-pink under Judy's kitchen window. And the ginkgo seed Ralph nursed through the winter has grown into the plucky seedling on Jason's kitchen table.

The horticultural trading spirit that has swept these residential streets originates in a secluded cul-de-sac off Fayette Street, outside the home of Helen Snively. Here, for nearly 20 years, Snively has hosted a wildly popular plant swap - a twice-yearly event where neighbors and friends gather to unload their excess plants and adopt blossoms brought by their neighbors. Most important, they get their noses out of their own flowerbeds.

"Yard sales and plant swaps get people out on the street, talking to other people. They're kind of like snowstorms that way," said swapper Maria Sauzier. "Only this is nicer than a snowstorm."

Throughout last Saturday's two-hour swap, the plants arrived in regal procession - by car, by grocery cart, washtub, and laundry basket. A particularly handsome helianthus was mobbed at the drive's entrance, and a 4 1/2-foot conifer inspired mania.

"Oh look, a Norfolk Island pine! I killed one a long time ago," cried Alison Woodman.

The plants' destination is a series of milk-crate-supported boards, laid like low benches. Snively provides cut Venetian blinds, which the gardeners use to label their contributions to the sprawling floral buffet - pots upon pots of herbs, shrubs, flowers, ivies, and grasses. Plus, a sack of scraggly stems cheekily labeled "Weedium grandiosio (weeds)."

The carnival atmosphere befits the free-for-all swap. Unlike a strict bartering system, people can bring whatever they like or nothing at all.

"It's subversion of the consumerist culture, and it works," said Kitty Beer, a swapper and environmental writer. "For anyone who experiences this, they see what we can accumulate without money."

Exchanging plants locally may even be more effective than buying from a retailer, said Jon Deloge, who happened by.

"The plants are really specialized - to a town," said Deloge, adding that he owns a landscape business. "Chances are they're going to work, if grown under similar conditions."

The swap is relatively small; about 40 people typically attend. But over the years, local political candidates, such as former state senator Jarrett Barrios, have whiffed enough of a movement to glad-hand among the green thumbs.

The swap began as a beautification effort by the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association. But in the hands of Snively, who composts and bikes, it has blossomed into a one-woman-organized event with an environmental impetus.

"A lot of stuff at garden stores is trucked in," said Snively. "Who knows how much gas it took to get those petunias there?"

The US Department of Agriculture doesn't track those numbers. But with wholesalers selling more than $58 million in petunias in the 15 most productive states last year, the pumps are no doubt being squeezed like stress balls.

Plant swapping, however, isn't just the latest Cantabrigian earth-saving fad. Many people simply want to meet the neighbors.

"I don't think of this as progressive, I think of it as human," said Susan Yanow, who grows enough pears on her urban lot to be listed as a farmer on the city census. "Humans need social networks."

Under the aural cover of Broadway's screechy traffic, swappers keep the oral tradition of old wives alive. Listen in and you'll learn that Bulgarian zdravetz, a type of geranium, can be used in jam. Join in and you'll find yourself debating whether the obedience plant is named for its positionable pipe-cleaner-like stems, or its stringently perpendicular leaves.

"It's fun because gardeners are slightly crazy when it comes to plants," said swapper Louisa Solano. "Normally, people look at you weirdly when you get really enthusiastic about a five-petal plant."

Longtime neighbors also rediscover their roots. From an album of past swaps, Ralph Clover marveled at a photo of himself 10 years younger, with his daughter - now a teenager - cradled in his arms. Nicki Croghan, who moved from the neighborhood, ran into Sara Mae Berman, who she hadn't seen since Berman loaned her garden space 10 years ago when she was a yardless renter.

The good will spills beyond Snively's cul-de-sac. One block over, Alison Woodman camouflaged an ugly wall in a public alley with a living screen of tulips, tiger lilies, rose of Sharon, forsythia, and iris - most from the swap. And after passersby ripped flowers from her rosebush, Woodman put out scissors and a note: You can snip one off.

The strangers, to her delight, felt moved to swap. They left floral postcards, the book "Random Acts of Kindness," and a bounty of thank-you notes.

"And I've only lost one pair of scissors," she said.

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