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The Commons
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Town and Village

Hope springs eternal

For 30 years, the Perennial Swappers have been adding color to each others' lives

The Perennial Swappers season continues with a tour of Ruth Marx’s garden on May 18. Meet at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston Center. Call Jillson at 802-257-9188 or Marx at 802-257-1121 for more information.

Originally published in The Commons issue #408 (Wednesday, May 17, 2017).

DUMMERSTON—Back in 1987, Ruth Marx, a human geneticist and avid gardener, had paid a man good money for his blue lobelias only to hear a friend later say, “Oh, why didn’t you tell me? I’d have given you some of that.”

About the same time, Bess Richardson, a nurse at Grace Cottage, was tossing her culled perennials over a bank.

“Ruth and I talked at church one day,” she said, and they came up with the only logical result: Dummerston Perennial Swappers, a loose-knit club designed to put excess perennials into the hands of people who want them.

“We named it Perennial Swappers because of the radio swap show on Smith and Clarke in the Morning on WTSA,” Marx said. “But it’s a plant giveaway.”

No one has to bring an item to get one. Pre-internet, Richardson and Marx spread the news through church announcements. At the first meet, people swapped plants, then convened in the church’s basement kitchen to hear some sound gardening advice.

“I put up a slide of a cat smelling a crocus,” Richardson remembered, and then she gave the talk. After subsequent swaps, “We started visiting flower gardens, and sometimes those gardeners had plants to share, too.”

Thirty years later, the tradition endures.

Membership is free and new gardeners are encouraged to show up empty-handed and leave with new plants.

“Perennials spread,” Richardson said. “They’re invasive. Well, what do you do with them all? Throw them away?”

Dummerston Perennial Swappers “is perfect for beginning gardeners,” Marx said. “They need to practice on free plants so they can save their money for what they HAVE to buy. Then they’ll be better gardeners with some experience and their stuff won’t die.”

The group meets twice a month in Dummerston Center or West Brattleboro on Thursdays at 6 p.m. during the growing season. A volunteer hostess collects a dollar from each participant to cover the group’s costs. Those with plants to give away line them up on the grass while the hostess gives directions to that evening’s garden tour.

Precisely at six, the giveaway begins. Swappers get giddy over the abundance and diversity of the offerings. People are asked to take one of whatever they want, step back, let others have a chance, then if anything remains, to take everything. All the plants must be gone before the garden tour begins.

Each year, the first garden visited is that of Dummerston’s Cheryl Wilfong, a meditation teacher and author of the award-winning blog The Meditative Gardener.

A Perennial Swapper for 20 years, Wilfong is the group’s e-mail secretary and runs its Facebook page. Visitors marvel over her white garden, a dazzling border where every delicate flower is white.

“My joy in gardens is giving plants away,” she said. “You multiply by dividing. I love that.”

She almost always brings a truckload of transplants to swap.

Bonnie Jillson, a vet tech at Vermont-New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic, joined decades ago “because I saw plants in people’s gardens that I wanted but couldn’t afford,” she said.

For the past 20 years, she has been scheduling the Swappers’ garden tours. Putting together the calendar in February and March is daunting because gardeners aren’t sure their prized azaleas, daylilies, or candelabra primroses will peak on time in July or August.

But Jillson persists because the tours and swaps are “a good community service,” she said. “This way everyone can enjoy the beauty of a garden, or smile when you have flowers.”

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