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Lowcountry gardeners build landscapes and community with plants swapped online

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A spring of stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of coronavirus sent many home gardeners into garden centers in droves, with new time to focus on their yards and flower beds. 

But for some in the Lowcountry, developing a green thumb didn't mean spending green, too. 

Plant swaps have been conducted in the area for years, including one every spring in Hampton Park. Patricia Sy of Mount Pleasant was a regular attendee, sometimes grabbing more than 20 plants to fill in her backyard. She's picked up prized rose bushes and hydrangeas over the years. 

But this year, the event was canceled, and organizers suggested a Facebook group: Lowcountry Plant Swap. With more than 2,000 members, the page functions as a digital square for at-home horticulturalists to barter what they've grown (or failed to make thrive). 

It's one of several online gardening hobbyist groups, but the swapping group is the most devoted to helping people get started for free. Sarah Bentz founded the group more than five years ago, and her West Ashley garden is almost entirely composed of plants she got from swaps or from volunteering in exchange for materials. 

"Everything's really special, because just about everything, I can remember where I got it, and who I got it from," she said.

The Facebook group started, she said, with some lemongrass that was multiplying out of control. Rather than individually messaging each of her friends and ask if they wanted some, she started the page. 

The membership is now beyond what she ever expected, Bentz said, having doubled since March alone. There's only one rule in the group: People cannot post individual sales of plants, though they're welcome to talk up local gardening businesses.

"We absolutely support and encourage people going and buying things from our local growers and our local nurseries," Bentz said. "But we want to be a backup in case somebody can't find something somewhere, or somebody doesn't have the money for it."

Members often ask for specific houseplants and outdoor shrubs, and more often than not, another gardener has some to share. Many offerings are donations, but some members get creative in their swaps, offering pots or garden tools. One recent poster offered pieces of quartz she had scavenged from around the state.

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For Sy, the group has been useful not just to pick up coveted plants, (in her case the aptly named string of hearts succulent) but for the knowledge and tips that other members provide, including which plants are invasive and should not be planted in the landscape. 

"You want to make sure what you’re planting is not something that’s going to damage your area per se," she said.

Bentz, herself a master gardener certified through Clemson University Extension, said she's often learning things from other members of the group, too. Members are eager to offer advice for what might fit well in a certain spot of the garden, or to identify a foreign plant that's sprung up. 

"Plant people are always going to want to talk to you about plants and give you suggestions," Bentz said.

For some, it's enough to watch the conversation and learn. Stephen Barnes, a teacher in West Ashley who started a garden of container plants this spring, has been swapping with neighbors but hasn't yet worked up the courage to post in the group. 

Barnes said he's appreciated the congenial community and likes to see what other people are planting. But in some cases, the competition has been intense.

"Every time that I find that there's something on there that I want, it always seems like there's 20 other people on there that have responded that they want it," he said. 

Still, one day he hopes to post some plants of his own for a swap. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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