Not long before Mike and I left our St. Johns neighborhood in 2003 to move to the country, we were invited by friends Rachel and Greg to a fun party—a plant exchange! The idea is, you pot up your extra tomato starts and the like, and then trade for starts you don’t have. We were unable to attend, and then we moved away. Upon returning to Portland, I learned that the plant exchange was still going strong. In fact, like the plants, it had grown!
St. Johns is one of those areas city planners like to call “transitional.” A small town in the late 1800s, it was annexed by Portland in 1915. Most of the neighborhoods built thereafter housed dock workers on the nearby Willamette and Columbia rivers—the homes are modest, mostly one-story Craftsman-types with tiny bedrooms and simple yards. The second wave of people who owned them, in the 1950s, upgraded them as per the era: painted woodwork, carpeted floors, chain link fences, aluminum window awnings, and lawn, lawn, lawn. Our house, when we moved in, even had one of those wooden wishing wells in the backyard. The recession of the ‘80s resulted in many of those homes falling into disrepair, and St. Johns is still working to pull itself out of that funk.
Rachel and Greg’s house is close to Pier Park, one of Portland’s original city parks that dwarfs the adjacent neighborhood with majestic Douglas firs and cedars. Their landscaping blends right in—they’ve replaced all of that lawn with an incredible naturescape of native plants and gravel paths, essentially creating a mini-park of their own. Greg’s previous job had him on major construction projects, so he made a habit of rescuing native plants as they fell to the bulldozer’s blade. The yard is resplendent with fringe cup, fern, rhododendron, Solomon’s seal, and even hard-to-transplant poet’s shooting star.
These days, Rachel starts preparing for the spring event the previous fall, potting up extra growth from her yard. “Our goal is to populate St. Johns with native plants,” she says.
After 11 years, there are dozens of people on the mailing list. They trickle in and out over the weekend, rain or shine, bringing everything from lettuce starts to massive stands of bamboo. They come with baskets, wheelbarrows and little red wagons. The yard is full of kids, swinging in hammocks and decorating their faces at the painting station. The grill is going and bottles of wine are open.
As they spread plants around the neighborhood, Rachel and Greg also spread neighborliness.