After moving to New York City last July, Alyssa Henderson was eager to meet new people. That’s already a challenging task, but especially during a global pandemic. So she turned to social media in search of local groups that matched her interests.
Already a gardener, Henderson hoped to find an online community that would help her adapt her plant interests for apartment living. That’s when she stumbled upon the NYC Plant Exchange group on Facebook, where she found a network of like-minded enthusiasts exchanging plants and cuttings, as well as posting photos of their ailing houseplants and seeking tips for how to save them.
Plant swaps were already common before the pandemic, although usually held in person. Similar to a clothing swap, a plant swap party involves each attendee bringing an agreed amount of plants, soil and/or pots to the event, and giving everyone a chance to acquire something new at no additional cost. But with social distancing guidelines in effect, plant parents had to find another way to continue the tradition. Like everything else, they moved online.
According to a recent National Gardening Association survey, 18.3 million people started gardening in 2020. Of all gardeners surveyed, 42 percent said they increased gardening during the pandemic. That’s a lot of new plant parents.
Many of the new gardeners flocked to online groups to find new plants for their collections. One of them was Megan Porter, who found the Portland Plant Swap group on Facebook and got involved as a way to keep herself occupied during lonely months of quarantine. “It gave me a reason to get out of the house,” she says. “For the most part, I do porch pickups and trades to be cautious.”
Jess Wong has amassed 45 plants through swaps and giveaways over the last seven months. Photo courtesy of Jess Wong.
Gabrielle Suppa, who started the NYC Plant Exchange group in October 2019, watched as the group “expanded pretty rapidly” at the beginning of the pandemic. It now has nearly 6,500 members, with smaller, off-shoot neighborhood groups that have sprouted off the main one. “It’s been really inspiring to see the community of plant and nature lovers come together and connect through our shared hobby, even during a pandemic,” says Suppa.
Zeba Parkar noticed a similar boom in the Atlanta area. The benefits of plant swaps abound, says Parkar. “It makes plants affordable and accessible for everyone, and most importantly, builds a plant community.” Yet she was growing increasingly frustrated by how time-consuming it was becoming to scroll through comments on various groups and forums, so she set out to find an easier way to trade plants. Last June, Parkar and her husband stepped away from their usual Netflix streaming and, instead, used that time to design a better system for swapping plants. A month later, they launched Plantswapper, a free web app that allows users to swap, share or sell plants by matching their listings within a selected mile radius. Parkar says plant enthusiasts have used Plantswapper to trade both common and rare plants, including babies and clippings, as well as mature, potted plants.
Of course, these online groups facilitate more than just plant exchanges. They help foster genuine community in an increasingly virtual world. “This has been one of my only activities with real people in the community as I currently work from home,” says NYC Plant Exchange member Jess Wong. “It’s been joyful to see people and hear them talk about their plants, almost as much as taking home a new baby.” Wong has acquired 45 plants through swaps and giveaways over the last seven months, including a sought-after monstera, golden pothos, coleus, oxalis, holiday cactus and inchplant.
Since joining the group after her move last summer, Henderson has traded nearly a dozen plants and pots and given out cuttings of her existing plants for free to other members of the group. Taking care of plants can be an expensive hobby, but she’s found a way around it. “I have gotten plants on my wish list for practically free through trading,” she says. It’s also allowed her to get to know the specific needs of certain plants without feeling like a failure when it doesn’t thrive. “Whenever a plant starts to hate me and I can’t provide what it needs, I’ll trade it for a different plant so I can try that [one] out.”
The group’s greatest benefit, says Henderson, has been the people she’s met through it. In fact, she found her cat through people she met for plant swaps, as well as a new best friend. “We’ve been hanging out and plant shopping ever since.”