Sunday, April 29, 2012

Host Your Own Plant Swap

Searching for that plant treasure

A friend on Facebook asked me if I could help her with how to go about organizing a plant swap.  It's pretty easy to host a swap but there are some basic things that really help to make these events go much smoother and make them more fun for participants.

First let me say that plant swaps are absolutely a blast and if you garden and have never been to one you are missing out.  They are a great way to connect with other gardeners and get free plants, seeds and other garden related tips on how to grow stuff!  I remember when I began gardening and how befuddled I felt at times so I always invite those who are brand new to gardening to just come and be encouraged and so they can start building their garden plant collection.  It's amazing the blessing this is to them and to the experienced gardeners who get to help invest in their success.

One of the hardest decisions...which seeds to take home
Here's my punch list of ideas and tips...
  • Give it a name - Seed swap, plant swap, gardener's swap; they all help to describe your event to those who will be attending.  I personally prefer "Gardener's Swap" as it opens up the swapping to the broadest range of items.  Truth be told, whatever the name, veteran swappers know what is good for swapping and often will bring it anyway.
    (See below for ideas on what to bring and what isn't recommended.)
  • Where to hold the event - I recommend you host it at your own home if you have the space.  (Your garden doesn't need to be show ready, this is a swap, not a garden tour.)  You will need space for everyone to set up their stash of plants and also a comfortable space for sitting down to visit.  Having a place to sit and visit helps folks feel welcome.  If you don't have that kind of room, consider asking a friend who gardens if they might be interested in having one at their house with your help.
  • Set a date and time - Spring and fall are the best seasons to host a swap, though you could have one virtually any time, like a seed, garden book and tool swap in mid winter.  Most swaps happen on the weekend but you could be a rebel and have one on a week night.  Just be sure you set a scheduled time for the event.  Four hours is good for the daytime events if you have a pot luck, an evening swap might only go two or three hours at most.  Or maybe have a one hour "Gardener's Madness Swap".  A woman in my area does that and I hear a lot of folks turn out for it.  Quick and dirty plant swapping for the swapper on a tight schedule.
  • Get the word out - People won't come if they don't know about your event. Yahoo Groups, Gardenweb, Dave's Garden, Twitter and Facebook groups are just a few places to get the word out online.  Community bulletin boards in grocery stores or cafes are great places to invite the community as are local news papers, and even local broadcast news community events calendars (some restrictions may apply) can work too.  These broadcast invitations are for those who have the space for what could possibly turn out to be a large crowd and.or who enjoy meeting strangers.  However you do it be sure the RSVP for attendance is highlighted so folks will be more likely to let you know they are coming. I know people don't always RSVP, but it will help to give you an idea on the approximate number of guests you'll need to set up for.  For smaller events or for that quaint feeling, consider handing out or mailing paper invitations. These are great, but they do take some time create and you'll have to pay for postage if you mail them.  Not a big deal but takes more effort.
  • PR Notice or invitation - If you are using public media of any kind you will need to include the following:  Name of the event, date, time, place, if it is potluck or if food is provided, basic guidelines (simple version), an RSVP request if a "closed" event and CONTACT INFORMATION for more information.  If you don't care if you have fifty people show up and have the space you can forgo the RSVP portion.
  • Dogs and children - as much as we love them this sometimes won't work to have them at these events.  For instance I live on a very busy street and especially with dogs it can be a dangerous thing.  And we have a grumpy old cat who is not dog friendly.  Need I say more.  Children are fine as long as the parents understand that other guests and myself are not responsible for watching them while they swap and the child needs to be having a good time.  We want everyone to have a fun and safe time!
  • Available Restroom! - It goes without saying that people will need to use the toilet, so be sure it is available to them.  I say this because I attended a swap once where there wasn't a toilet available to the guests.  As luck would have it I needed to use one and had to leave the swap.  Well, it was far enough away I decided it wasn't worth going back.  (Sad, sad, sad)
  • Weather Concerns - Be sure to have a place for people to get out of the rain or the heat of the sun if need be.  If it's hot, fans are nice to have around, and if it's cold, someplace to warm up is nice too. I use one of those big tents that you can park a car under ("Autoshade" tent) with sides on it. It's about 12' x 20' and works really well for swap events because it has room chairs, some tables too and is a good place to set up the refreshments or other food. If it's raining please provide a dry location for seeds and books or other things that rain might damage.
Under the big top where we swapped seeds and ate pot luck
  • Plan for refreshments or a potluck - Hey food is a great thing!  Gardeners LOVE to eat when they get together, something worth considering when making your plans.  It can be potluck or if you are up to it you can provide the food yourself.  It can be a brunch, lunch, dinner, just snacks or maybe even a yummy dessert (a pie party is fun).  At minimum you should supplying your guests with something to drink.  Anything you offer will help them feel more welcome and hang around a bit longer.  It doesn't need to be fancy, simple works best as hosting a swap can be a lot of work so don't try to do too much yourself.
The guys getting ready to barbeque burgers and brauts
  • Designated Swap Area Set-up - Most swaps are set up with everyone's things kept in their own separate little space. You don't have to provide tables though it is nice if you have them to provide.  I did a swap once with plants set up in categories instead of by worked great too and helped folks in making their choices.  Just be sure if you do it this way that everyone is on board with it.  Some swappers are rather persnickety about such things and like to keep control of their stash.
  • Seed Swap Station - Because they need to stay dry these are usually set up on a table under cover.  It helps to encourage seed swappers to bring extra envelopes so people can take a bit of this or that seed home with them.  As host it's nice if you supply a few pens and pencils too.
The main swap area out and cruising swappers
  • "Pre-Swap Trades" area.  Unless people want to hold things at their cars be sure to have an area ready that is for any swaps that people planned ahead of time and lets everyone else know the plants are off limits unless their name is on them.  Include a sign of some kind to keep others out of these plants as they are usually more rare or desirable or limited in number which is why this type of trading is done.
  • Name Tags - We love to hate them but at swaps they are very handy since you will have a lot of strangers meeting each other for the first time.
  • Provide extra tags and marking pens - They don't have to be fancy just whatever you have that people can mark their plants with should they need to...and someone always needs to.
  • Basic Swap Event Guidelines for Participants - This is very important and will help to keep everyone on the same page (hopefully) as to what is expected of them and what you will be providing for them. 
  • What folks can swap:  Plants, seeds, extra tools, planting containers, garden trellises, garden art, gardening magazines and books etc.

  • No Invasive plants and chemicals!  Both of these are troublesome to deal me. As far as the invasive plants if someone does bring one, make it a teaching moment and not a point of condemnation.  It is surprising how many people don't know what plants are invasive and even against the law to transplant.  (English Ivy is one such plant here but I still see it at swaps every so often.)
  • Participants are urged to have an ID tag with each plant they are swapping.  This alleviates a lot frustration for them and the host and others who need to know what that crazy pink daisy is called at Sally's table.  Encourage them to do the best they can if they ask and assure them that if they they don't know the name that they just need to bring tags and someone at the event will help ID the plant(s) and they get to write the tags up.  (Be perpared to offer extra ID tags for those who won't have any too...within reason of course.)  TIPS: If they can snap a photo and send it to you for identification before hand or ask their friends via social media that will help to avoid the last minute rush all together!   Write the ID tags up using #2 pencil or a UV-stable marker (Sharpie makes an industrial pen that is UV-stable).  I wholly do not recommend using ball point pen or other markers as they tend to fade very quickly (within 30 days). 
  • Pre-Swap Trades - These are set up prior to the event between people who want to secure trades of specific plants prior to the event, for pick up on that day. This is a common practice in plant swapping communities and some of our best swapping is done this way.  These swaps need to be honored by all attending swappers and should be done early to avoid confusion as to which plants are up for grabs.  It can be confusion to some even if you do have a separate area set up or plants marked.

Next time I separate the promised plants out.
  • Have pre-swap trades marked with recipient's name before getting to the swap! VERY IMPORTANT as this will save a ton of headaches.  The last swap I attended I didn't do it and it caused me undo stress as swappers descended on my offerings and tried to lay claim to those promised plants.  I felt bad having to tell them no but a promise is a promise.
  • Swap Etiquette -  Always ask before taking a plant and don't assume you can just grab what's in the pile.   It's good to remind people about this the day of the event as swapping creates so much excitement sometimes people forget and get a little nutty with plant lust.
The host's swap offerings, plants and a tour
  • Open Swap Time After everyone has gone around gathering up plants they want it's often good to have a time where anything and everything can just be scooped up by folks.  Allow people some time to set back any plants they don't wish to be in the Open Swap time.  This can be a great time for new gardeners to get a boatload of goodies for their garden that are maybe more common and things the more seasoned gardener already has or maybe those plants that are just simple to grow.
  • Swap Schedule - Set up a loose schedule of when things will be happening.  Pre-swapping for the first hour, (those who aren't participating can have coffee and a snack or just chat and drool over everyone's treasures).  Next open up the general swap and finally open swap.  Have breaks in between and call folks to the table for food.  These are just basic guidelines, you can do it however it feels right to you but this is how many of the swaps I've been to have done things and it works pretty well.

Another idea I have seen work really well is to plan an area for plants that are good for new gardeners to grow.  We all have plants that will fit in this category and there is almost always a new gardener that shows up at a swap needing plants and your sage garden wisdom.  Its a great way to encourage and invest in their success.

As a long time gardener there have been times I have gone to swaps and not taken home a single thing but went simply to get rid of excess plants.  This is so much fun to do as I get to really take time to visit with people and it's so much fun watching others enjoy their new found treasures.  I highly recommend trying it sometimes.

Well, that's about it.  If you have questions please leave them in the comments below. 
Have fun and happy swapping!

Copyright © 2012 by Patty Hicks
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  1. Great ideas and suggestions, Patty! Much of that is how we do it over here in NC. The twice-a-year swaps we go to have pretty much followed all of the guidelines you outlined.

    Much like your trade - there are also pre-arranged swaps that take place before the 'main event'.

    We 'swap' a little differently, though. Once the plants have been put out for people to gawk and gander over for a while, the swap coordinator rings a bell, and everyone gets their choice of ONE plant. after a few minutes, he rings the bell again, and everyone gets to choose ONE more plant. Depending on the quantity, uniqueness and/or variety of plants, we may have a couple rounds of ONE plant, then a few rounds of TWO plants, then just THREE plants. By that time, hopefully, everyone will have had a decent chance of grabbing something that caught their eye upon arrival. Then, the final bell to grab whatever is left.

    Then, in our case, it's gathering your stash close to your vehicles ( don't want to load the car yet if it's 90° outside), and the pot luck meal is on. We rent a space from one of the local town's parks that has covered picnic areas as well as on-site restrooms, and it's pretty well centrally located for the 30-50+ people we have show up every year.

    So far, we haven't run across any internet axe murderers yet, either!!! :)

    ~Tom Mann

    1. Oh I like the idea of the bell Tom and the rounds of choosing plants. I bet it helps keep the anxious addicts in tow some. These swaps can get a little crazy.

    2. I have been hosting a Plant Swap for about 9 years. I have it themed. This year it is "Friendship Through Flowers". I hold the Swap at my home. We usually have about 100 in attendance. The plants are placed on tables which are labelled as to sun, shade, etc. Each person is asked to bring at least 5 plants. Each person selects a number. Since there are so many people, there are at least 5 of each number. For example, when the number 1 is called, 5 people who have drawn this number step forward and make one selection. It is very orderly. After swapping (which includes doorprizes) we go inside my home for refreshments which I have prepared. I keep tons of drinks all over the yard. Guests are encouraged to tour my home, which was built in 1820, and to tour my gardens. I mail out and e-mail invitations and attendees sign in and update their information. Some years I have asked people to bring a flower from their yard to place into a large arrangement - bringing together everyone's garden. The themes have been fun such as the year everyone wore hats. One man made a hat that worked as a fan and had it attached to his head and back. Others put tons of fresh flowers on their hats. Great fun . . . tons of work!

    3. That sounds like a truly delightful time...and those of us who have hosted swaps can appreciate the amount of work it would take. Interesting the way you have people bring only 5 plants...our groups bring so many plants and so many varieties I don't know how they would handle only being able to bring five. Love the idea though...sounds much more elegant than our swaps. Thank you for sharing. This is so interesting hearing different ways of planning a swap.

  2. Thank you for all this great info, I will be aiming to do a plant swap soon. Its really dreadful weather here (UK) at the moment and as soon as the sun comes out I promise to organise one,I will share the pictures with

    1. That is great! Glad you found the info I shared helpful. I know others who have commented had some good ideas too. It seems every swap has a little different flavor so it is really fun seeing what everyone comes up with for theirs. Have fun planning yours and I do hope your weather will get better soon for you.