Experienced and newbie gardeners shared camaraderie and advice along with seeds and seedlings on Saturday, March 10, at Susan’s Simple Seed Swap in Altadena.
Susan Ham of Altadena organized the event to share her excess seeds; but participants garnered much more. “It’s called friendship gardening,” Susan explained. “You give a plant and get a plant. But gardeners also like to socialize. There are curmudgeons, of course," she said, "but generally we’re a friendly bunch. Experienced gardeners like to help new ones.”
During the two-hour swap session approximately 15 people came with offerings - seeds, seedlings, grown plants and advice on all topics gardening. The warm, sunny morning was heady with generosity and the scent of flowers and fertilizer.
Susan welcomed each newcomer to the small pavilion adjacent to the Altadena Community Gardens. With every arrival the picnic table became increasingly adorned. There were baskets, trays, bowls, boxes, Tupperware, cans, baggies, and old medicine bottles all filled with seeds and seed envelopes, large and small.
Everything was available for the taking: Flowers of all kinds; varieties of peppers, lettuces, spinach, beans, herbs, squash, onions, tomatoes, melons, and more, too numerous to mention.
For one Altadena resident, a life-long gardener, this was her first seed swap. She described the delights of Bishops Crown – a decorative holiday pepper plant with bell-shaped red, green, and yellow fruit – to eager listeners. She’d also brought striped sunflower seeds and celery, spinach and leek plantings.
A relative newbie, a young man from Alhambra, came with tiny tomato seedlings in newspaper containers. He was a recent graduate from UC Berkeley who wanted to network with other gardeners and learn. His biggest challenge, he told Susan, was growing in a small space. She directed him to one of the garden plots using high density gardening techniques.
Debbie Oisboid, from Chatsworth, was a seasoned gardener and seed swapper who also exchanges on-line. She has a quarter-acre garden at home and traveled 30 miles to the event. Most recently she’s been looking for Yakon, a cross between a potato and Jerusalem artichoke. Debbie commented too on the friendliness of gardeners and how much they like to help.
Almost on cue, as though this were a symphony, gardening advice drifted in from the side. A newbie couple had just asked what, in addition to tomatoes, can grow upward. “Peas and beans are good, also squash, melons and cucumbers. Anything that vines can be trained to grow up.”
More advice flitted through the air: Put oatmeal containers over celery to encourage then to grow tall; calendulas make good compost and are edible; sunflowers and chocolate cosmos bring in beneficial bugs so plant them early; strawberries and lettuce work well in raised beds; yes, you can make fertilizer from horse manure, but water it down to remove the salt; corn, beans and squash grow especially well together – Native Americans called them the ‘three sisters.’
The youngest seed swapper was nine years old. She brought lima beans and green beans and left with marjoram, dill mammoth and false onion.
When her dad opened his carton from the nursery a commotion ensued. “Wow,” someone said, “he’s got the good stuff!” Laughter erupted. “Well, we’re all adults here,” someone else added. You’d have thought he was giving out pot to potheads. They were Monterrey strawberry starts, hairy brown twig-like things, a unique variety with an especially sweet aftertaste. Everyone was salivating.
For experienced gardeners swaps are also about trying new things. It’s less a matter of economics – though some seeds are expensive – and more a fascination with what can be grown, Susan explained. One gardener, who said she planted the same things every year, was excited to take away canary melon and four-corners gold bean seeds. And although Debbie hadn’t found any Yakon, she was pleased about trying nutmeg scented geraniums.
According to Debbie, the event was very well organized. “There were lots of very interesting seeds available and I was very impressed by the selection of live plants as well. And the setting was delightful because you could go into the gardens and see everything ‘in action.’"
Susan was happy too. She’d been to many seed swaps but this was the first she’d hosted. “Given it was a Saturday morning, when you compete with chores and other events, the turnout was amazing.” She’d also heard from people who wanted to attend but couldn’t. Keep your eyes open for Susan’s next seed swap. She hopes to host another in the fall so people can get seeds for winter planting.