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Plant Swap Prep: Putting Your Best Root Forward


CS lives in an house that's being slowly converted into a rainforest by his rapidly-propagating plant collection.


Plant swaps are simply great. If you've never been to one, I can tell you that there's no better way to get a lot of great new plants, make new friends, and save a ton of money. The best ones benefit a great cause, and will often have a "Free to a Good Home" table, so there's always a reason to go check things out.

That said, getting the most out of a Plant Swap takes a bit of work, preparation, and artistic savvy to show off your plants' best side(s). Too many newbie swappers come unprepared to an event, and even veterans can miss out on the plant of their dreams if they don't maximize their plants' trade value.

"Anybody want to trade...?"

"Anybody want to trade...?"

Know The Rules, Rule The Swap

Fortunately, making the most of a Swap doesn't mean having a degree in horticulture, just common sense. I've seen extremely rare, healthy species be passed over for extremely common ones, simply because their owner assumed that the plant's rarity would count for more than organization and presentation. No matter what level of plant owner you are, investing an hour or two in preparation can make all the difference.

Starting with the most important rule...

Rule 1: Presentation Matters

Same fish...

Same fish...

....different presentation. Which would you swap for?

....different presentation. Which would you swap for?

For anyone that's never seen a halibut in real life, imagine for a moment that you're in a fine seafood restaurant, and that face shows up on your plate. A full halibut is so much more valuable than the neat, beautiful fillet that you ordered, by hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But that's not what you're looking for in a fancy restaurant. You're looking for a small, beautifully-presented portion that is enjoyable to behold.

A major difference between this outlandish example and a Plant Swap is that depending on which "fillet" you bring home, it could eventually become the "halibut". To bring this metaphor into the real world, a 50 year-old jade plant or bonsai has little place at a standard neighborhood plant swap, and just showing up with one is about as welcome as dragging a whole lingcod into a fine dining establishment.

What IS appropriate is a small, manageable cutting, propagate, or small-medium plant that can easily be moved, handled, and displayed in an attractive way. As a general guideline, try to stick to anything that you can hold comfortably with one hand. If you're considering bringing a 10 year-old Monstera deliciosa, don't be surprised if swappers pass it up in favor of a rooted 6 month-old cutting of the same species.

In terms of presentation, put some thought into grooming your plants before the event. Trim dead leaves and roots, wash and dust leaves, remove wilting blooms, and generally groom your plants like they're going in for a job interview. Because in a way, they are.

And just as a clean, professional outfit highlights a job candidate, putting a little thought into the pot/vase/packaging/root ball that will accompany your plant will go a long ways toward presenting them in the best light. Thrift shops are a great place to browse for quirky, elegant, or unique jars and vases that can house cuttings for a swap, and don't overlook the appeal of a water-rooted cutting in a classy (and well-washed) bottle.

Remember, no matter how rare or valuable your specimens are, nobody wants to trade for a soggy wad of foliage in a plastic bag.

Rule 2: Labels, Labels, Labels!


In the Internet Era, you can assume a certain amount of on-the-spot research will be taking place at the event. You don't need to get crazy about it, but even a simple label like the one on the Paphiopedilum orchid above will give potential swappers enough to figure out if your plant is for them. This is particularly important for flowering species that aren't currently in bloom (bonus points for incorporating photos in your tags!).

At minimum, you should label each specimen with at least a genus (Paphiopedilum) and a common or trade name, if you know them. You should also include very general care instructions, most importantly sun and watering needs (they're on the back of the tag in the above photo). The more specific you can get, the better so if you have full species name, cultivar, etc, definitely include them. But remember that you're not writing a novel here, and you can always chat about specifics in person.

If you're not sure what you have, label it as such! There's nothing to be gained from pretending (as there's likely to be at least a few people who can ID your plant at a given event), so either do some research and try to figure it out beforehand or admit its mysterious origins up front. The downside is that you're limited by what you don't know about what you're offering; I'd recommend the phone app "Seek" by iNaturalist to help you at least get started in identifying and unidentified plants you're swapping.

Either way, consider labelling more or less non-negotiable. To make things easier, there are a lot of free plant label templates online for exactly this purpose (and I've included a good one below). The more artsy you feel inclined to get, the better, but don't worry about overly specific care instructions, as your plants' new owner can probably find it online after/during the event.

You can make your own tags, or use a printable tag like this one from Lavender Julip. Either way, make sure they're labelled!

You can make your own tags, or use a printable tag like this one from Lavender Julip. Either way, make sure they're labelled!

Rule 3: Care For Your Cuttings

Most succulents require little to no soil to be viable, especially Sempervivum like this one.

Most succulents require little to no soil to be viable, especially Sempervivum like this one.

Seems obvious, but the desirability of your plants (and therefore your ability to trade them) can depend on whether a potential swapper is confident that it will survive and grow once they take it home. You'd be surprised how many "cuttings" are completely mishandled at swaps, essentially dooming them to suffer under their new owners.

The major offender here are philodendrons, with Monstera at the top of the list. M. deliciosa in particular has exploded in popularity recently, mostly due to those gorgeous tropical-looking fenestrated leaves; however, if you're planning on swapping a cutting of any philodendron, you have to be extremely careful to include a node (think the "knuckle" of a stem). Philodendron cuttings without a node are really just a leaf, and don't have any meristems to allow them to establish roots.

The upshot here is that unrooted cuttings of philodendron (and all other species) are only swappable if they are A) going to actually grow after the event, B) the swapper can clearly see the key features that show they will. Package your cuttings as transparently as possible so that swappers can see as much of the plant as possible, and people will be a lot more willing to trade.

Just as obviously, hopefully, you have to make sure that your swapping plants won't dry out during the event. Moving is always stressful for plants, so ensure that any roots or exposed stems are clearly well-protected from drying at the event.

A major caveat exists here for succulents (and orchid keikis). Their extreme popularity is largely due to their minimal care needs, which extends to their "swappability". Most don't need any particular care or packaging for a swap, don't require water or soil through the process, won't dry out, and in some cases, even a single leaf is plenty to survive and grow.

This means you have a lot more leeway when preparing them for a swap, but also means you can expect plenty of competing succulents, orchids, airplants, and any other hardy species that need next to zero care for a swap. The key to making these plants shine therefore has nothing to do with survival, and everything to do with ingenuity. Think of artful, interesting ways to display them and you'll have a major advantage over swappers depending on attracting trades with the plant alone*.

*My favorite that I've seen is a "Chick Shot", in which a swapper was trading a shot glass with 3-5 chicks from Sempervivum a.k.a. Hens & Chicks. The plants were relatively common, but she ended up trading for a Ludisia simply because the owner loved the shot glass they came in.

Know what you're trading for! Coleus like this one develop roots easily and quickly in water, and plants with well-developed root systems are a better value than fresh cuttings.

Know what you're trading for! Coleus like this one develop roots easily and quickly in water, and plants with well-developed root systems are a better value than fresh cuttings.

Rule 4: Do Your Homework, Make Plan, and Stick To It. Or, Don't...


Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

Expect to fall in love many times during a plant swap, as an endless variety of gorgeous foliage parades past, each more lovely than the last. But therein lies the problem: you can also expect to have your heart broken many times if you're not careful.

The quote above is to remind us all (self included) that if you don't have a few particular target plants in mind, then any plant you like is as good as any other. Don't worry too much about getting the best possible deal, but more about sharing the Plant Love and ending up with something new that you like. You'll be a lot happier at the end of it. Trust me.

That said, Plant Swaps are your best possible chance to score a screamin' bargain on rare plants. If that's your endgame, I strongly recommend compiling a list of priority species to look for, and sticking to it. The distractions will be tempting and many, so only through extreme discipline will you be able to focus.

My personal view, for what it's worth, is that part of the fun is to let the Swap take you where it does, without much concern for the destination. If you see a plant you like, snap a photo of the plant/tag as an insurance policy in case you don't get it, and you can always go find it later. Any plant you come home with will be new and fun for you, at any rate.

And you'll be in good company, among your fellow Phytophiles. To paraphrase another Carrol quote, we're all mad here...

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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