By Jane Fishman
As rogue gardeners who believe in science and who want to live long enough to see our okra seeds germinate, we were in a pickle. For 20 years, we’ve been meeting the first Saturday of October and April to swap plants. We are not best friends; planting is the common denominator. I started hosting the Savannah Style Plant Swap after trying to trash some Mexican petunias – or were they beach daisies? – that had taken over my garden. I didn’t want to rip them out but I needed the room. I didn’t want to toss them in the compost pile but I was, well, tired of their greedy ways. No matter how much I ignored them, they continued to live, to breathe, to multiply. But oy, the guilt! Surely someone else might want these sprawling, hardy, robust plants. I didn’t. The swaps got me and others off the hook.
Our theme? Invasive by nature.
Then the pandemic hit. We weren’t eating out, shopping out, venturing out. We were being good. But jeez, did we have to scrap the plant swap too? We’re a band of merry gardeners who love to get real close and talk real dirty – about the four-story lime tree that won’t produce, how to grow sugar cane (lie it on its side about two inches in the dirt), what to do with the ancient but ubiquitous spiderwort that won’t stay in its own lane, how to coax a bloom out of the mercurial crocosmia, how to tame the alstroemeria (“you know, the flowers on Kroger’s latest billboard”), which is taking over the whole back 40.
We’re a loquacious bunch. We have opinions. We turn to one another for advice. (Not the big box stores.) We know who knows best. (Not the horticulturists.) We don’t give a fig about espalier or garden design (though we love and aspire to be like the British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy).
We meet on a piece of land in West Savannah I’ve squatted on for years. It’s on the artsy-fartsy side but I grow things too even though there is no water source. It’s a simple but brilliant concept. Bring your plants, corms, roots, bulbs, seeds, rhizomes, trees, seedlings. No money is allowed. No tit for tat either. No one’s paying any attention to what you’re taking. No plants? Bring something to eat (one year, a returning swapper brought me some stinging nettle lasagna, the stinging nettle a freebie from the garden). Bring a story.
But the virus! What to do and still stay alive? How to get our gardening camaraderie fix? Where will I get some promised north Georgia candy roaster squash seeds? Who can I coerce to haul away segments of my lethal prickly pear cactus? What about the seeds I culled from the zinnias that came with the following note: “First planted in 1942. Share the love.”
The questions came flying in.
This is what I told people. Come masked. Drop your plants off Thursday through Saturday. If there’s a crowd, turn around and come back later. Say hello with your eyes and your elbows. Keep the conversations to a minimum. Walk around the garden. Look at the early butterflies, listen to the mockingbirds. It worked.
There were potted loquat trees, piles of queen’s tears (bilbergia), ginger lily roots, packages of loofah seeds, miniature packets of dwarf butterfly seeds, a stack of plastic pots, and even though I told people not to bring food, plates of zucchini bread from last year’s crop, poppy seed muffins, Girl Scout cookies, a pitcher of Jamaican sorrel. And a package of zinnias first planted in 1942 from the last swap. I had more than enough. I could share.
Jane Fishman’s got a great life in Savannah. She gets to grow garlic, write newspaper columns in the Savannah Morning News about any wacko she can find (and get paid for it), publish books (her latest: I’d Rather Be Seen Than Viewed, a collection of her columns; preceded by So What’s the Hurry? Tales From the Train ; I Grew it My Way, How Not to Garden; The Dirt on Jane; and The Woman Who Saved an Island, the Story of Sandy West and Ossabaw Island), listen in on conversations with her two grandchildren, Baker and Benny, while going on morning nature walks as they debate which is better, living in the country or the city (“I like both habitats,” says 7-year-old Benny). Fishman owned a laundromat in Eureka Springs, Ark., cooked in a French restaurant in Key West, won a bunch of journalism awards in Savannah for humorous and serious columns. When she lived in Chicago and worked at WTTW public television, she met Fran of Kukla, Fran and Ollie and watched Abbie Hoffman rant at the trial of the Chicago 7. Fishman grew up in Detroit (Huntington Woods, really), where she never owned a car. She was the sports editor of her high school newspaper (The Acorn) at Royal Oak Dondero. This is her first wedding.