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Community plant exchange gives new life to old plants

on October 30, 2014

The sweet aroma of braised meats, spices and simmering vegetables drifted in the autumn air. What is that tantalizing smell—and why is it coming from the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church during a plant exchange?

That is the smell of “crazy stew,”a tradition at the Plant Exchange that began with the exchange’s founder, Odette Pollar. It’s one of the specialties created by chef Eddie Blyden; the two met because his burger restaurant in Oakland, Crossburgers, happens to be across the street from her own business, Smart Ways to Work, where she is a time management and organizational coach. Pollar asked him to create something for the event, and this was the result. “It’s called crazy stew because it’s land vs. sea,” Blyden said. “I slowly braise pork, then add squid, calamari, chicken meatballs, local potatoes carrots, mushrooms, coconut milk, curry, and lots of local herbs, lots of garlic.”

The line for crazy stew continued to grow, at one point full of people chatting in different languages and asking what its ingredients might be. The plant exchange area, set up on the church lawn across from the crazy stew cauldron, consisted of several long display tables with decorative hand-painted signs specifying which plants should be placed on each table. Plant exchangers filled up all of the tables with plants ranging from fruit and deciduous tree cuttings, to geraniums, begonias, and California drought-tolerant cacti.

The plant exchange began in 2007, when Pollar had the idea to invite her neighbors and friends to a gathering held in her backyard lawn. It proved to be very popular, and so began a biannual tradition that has grown exponentially ever since. The plant exchanges—one in the spring and one in the fall—now draw about 700 participants, and over 2,500 plants are exchanged. Over the years, the exchange has been held at public parks and in parking lots. This year, throngs of plant aficionados were eager to enter its new location at the church.

Water conservation seems to be on everyone’s mind during the Plant Exchange; the drought-tolerant plants were gone within the first couple of hours of the exchange. “Considering I lived in Anguilla, one of the driest islands in the Caribbean, I learned early on to be aware of how important it is that we waste less water,” says Blyden. “It’s definitely necessary to be aware of water conservation in California. Reservoirs areat an all-time low. Nature conservationists—and now the governor—is issuing warnings, yet people still want lush green lawns of grass!”

Eve Abbott and Friederike Droegemueller met at the first plant exchange at Pollar’s house; this time they were staffing the information booth. They have a fun chemistry together, playing off one another’s keen sense of humor. They said that they are excited about the new additions to the plant exchange this year: the pop-up store that sells gardening tools and fresh baked cookies, pastries, and bread. Plus, this year there was more foot traffic on the circular sidewalk outside the church that “just lends itself to a plant exchange,” Abbott said, before Droegemueller interrupted her to add that “the plant exchange is probably one of the healthiest things I’ve seen. It’s healthy from both an emotional and community level.”

Abbott said she was particularly excited about the Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign that is currently happening for the Plant Exchange. If the Plant Exchange successfully fundraises the $12,000 they have requested by November 26th, it would get them closer to their long-term goal of becoming a 501c3 non-profit organization, and expand their current resources. “I understand that some guy got $55,000 dollars for potato salad, so I think we ought to do pretty well,” said Abbott, chuckling about another popular crowdsourcing campaign, then added, “But yes, if we are successful, we will be a lot more productive.”

Inspired by the launching of the crowdsourcing campaign, Rahul Pandhe, a volunteer with the Plant Exchange, is also gathering the names of plant exchangers who would be interested in using a phone application to exchange plants year-round. He hopes to use the list to show investors he knows that there is a great deal of personal interest in the idea, so that they will support the development of this application.

Throughout the event, Pollar was busy keeping the tables of plants organized, coordinating recognitions given to volunteers throughout the day, and assisting attendees with their gardening questions, but she finally had a few moments to be interviewed. Pollar has the cheerful and peaceful disposition of an experienced gardener, and the multi-tasking skills only a time management coach could brag about. “I am always very happy to see how this event has grown, from a small gathering in my backyard to all this,” said Pollar, pointing to the busy crowds of plant exchangers behind her.

Pollar began to list off what a successful crowdsourcing campaign would mean for the Plant Exchange. “We would finally rent a dedicated place to store supplies instead of in multiple places, as we have up until this point. We’d be able to finally pay some of our dedicated volunteers and meet the popular request to hold a third event in the year, which right now is very hard to do without additional resources,” she said.

By sundown, most plants had been swapped, and the tables were empty. A little girl with a huge grin on her face walked over to her mom to show off her small collection of cacti. “I’m glad we came, Mommy! Look at all my drought-resistant plants!” she said holding her collection proudly as they walked toward their car.

For more information on Oakland’s Plant Exchange, volunteering and to contribute to their fundraising campaign online visit

Contact or call (510) 866-8482.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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