Spring into plant swap season and visit a local French ‘TrocPlantes’

Columnist Sarah Beattie discovers the community spirit of swap events where gardeners exchange cuttings

Seedlings awaiting a new home; Association Collembole Jardin Partagé at Marciac, Gers – this year’s Troc is on May 12

In spring this not-so-young woman’s fancy turns to plant swapping. 

Through the autumn I was taking cuttings, over winter I have been dividing and now it’s spring I have been sowing. 

I have a lot of new plants, they fill the greenhouse and the cold frames, they spread across the concrete path.

There are so many little pots that a friend once asked my husband if I might ‘have a problem’. I may indeed, but a ‘Troc’Plantes’ or plant swap is the solution.

The first ‘Troc’ I ever went to was in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. We had heard about it through an email.

We loaded up the car one autumn afternoon and drove over an hour, eventually finding the swap – this was in pre-Sat Nav days – in the beautiful garden of an old presbytery. 

Wonderfully well organised, it was a brilliant introduction to the art of the swap. 

Read more: Gardening in France: Dianthus or pinks are a classic passalong cutting

I started my own plant swap event

After a couple of years, I decided to organise a spring swap in our village on the eve of our annual vide-grenier (garage sale). It couldn’t be the same day as the ethos of a swap is non-commercial – no money changes hands. The plants are not for sale.

The first year, very few of us arrived with plants. There were also some curious onlookers who wanted to know what was going on. 

The second year more folk came to swap and by the third year we were a fixture on the calendar. 

How I run my 'TrocPlantes'

I follow the same format as the 64 Troc because I have found it’s easily the fairest and simplest. 

On arrival, participants are given space on a table with a numbered marker and a corresponding number to wear. 

Everyone then circulates, chats and looks at the plants on offer. 

If you spot something you’d like, you invite the owner to your table to see if there is anything amongst your pots that they would fancy. 

After a decade we have moved on to using names, not numbers. Now it’s also a good opportunity to practise your French as more and more locals are showing up – in fact, last year when our Troc’Plantes clashed with the coronation, for the first time, Brits were in the minority. 

Read more: ‘French gardeners love the Britishness of the Open Garden scheme’

Creating a fair system

Not all swaps operate like this – some just have a communal table where people leave what they have brought and take what they want. 

In theory, this might work but in practise it doesn’t. The gardeners who bring the most are often the most reluctant to help themselves and those who show up with the least, rush to take the best. 

I find this sad but true, based on experience. 

There are other token-based systems where you are issued with tickets to exchange for plants, depending on how many you have brought – these do not seem to acknowledge quality or size, only quantity. 

Unfortunately, some people will always try to abuse whatever arrangements you have. 

Sometimes, it’s through ignorance or inexperience. I’ve found most gardeners are generous and helpful but we have limits – you might get away with ripping stuff out of the ground that morning your first year but the next, you will need to have made some rooted cuttings. 

A friendly communal space 

Apart from our own Troc, my favourite is the following weekend run by Association Collembole at the Jardin Partagé in Marciac (Gers). 

Freed from being the organiser, I am able to chat and swap more. 

I love the ambience – such a friendly communal space where, unlike at British allotments, little is in rows, nor is it regimented. 

People’s plots have curves and spill over with lush planting of flowers, trees and shrubs as well as fruit and vegetables. They have ponds and sculpture, parasols and sun loungers. 

There are communal spaces too for cooking, eating and socialising. And they haven’t forgotten the eco-latrines. 

They run an outdoor school for children and have recently bid for a Departmental grant to build a communal greenhouse. 

How to find a local plant swap

To find Troc’Plantes in your area, check out local Facebook What’s On pages, Google ‘troc plantes’ and your department. 

Read any newspaper reports of previous ones and find details of the associations running them. Or join the ‘Troque Ta Plante’ group for your region on Facebook.

If you want to start your own, ask around. If you don’t know people, consider putting a bilingual card up in the supermarket offering to exchange plants. Envelopes of seeds can also be swapped. 

You may think, ‘oh, but I only have masses of tomato or courgette seedlings’ but they will probably be a different variety from other people’s or someone else might be thrilled to replace their slug munched plants. 

Keep on ‘troc-ing’

One year a couple turned up with a huge range of different hydrangeas, all carefully labelled (I’m still looking after mine). They wanted any blue perennials. 

Others have brought just saplings but wanted plants for the potager. Most people show up with a mix of things. 

I have had a few muddy rhizomes of iris, a yoghurt pot full of zinnias, some slightly floppy coreopsis in a big clod of clay, washed and trimmed roots of enormous hibiscus du marais, sprawling banksias roses, tiny Mexican fleabane daisies, arum lilies and an albizia (pink mimosa tree). 

All still thrive in my garden (the seeds of the original zinnias resown of course). 

Some things do so well that I divide them and take some back to the next swap to pass on the favour. 

Once you start, you just have to keep on troc-ing.