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Propagating abundance at one of Austin's newest plant stands
How one North Austinite turned her freeze-induced trauma (and love of cacti) into a community hub for connection, cuttings and so much more.
Editor’s note: In yesterday’s newsletter, I told you about Little Free Pantry ATX, one of more than a dozen mini food pantries across Austin. Today’s story is about another community movement that has taken off during the pandemic. I’m publishing these ahead of the North Austin Good Neighbor Fest, which is taking place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.
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Like so many people in need of a coping skill during the pandemic, Rachel Robin turned to plants.
And like so many Austinites in need of help during the 2021 freeze, she turned to her neighbors.
She quickly realized she didn’t know any of them.
Robin is the owner of Quail Creek Plant Stand, where people can leave plant offerings and take home new plants that catches their eye. A pothos sitting in a vase of water, a tiny cactus in a tiny clay pot, a string of succulents coiled in a jar.
After moving to the North Austin neighborhood of Quail Creek in 2015, Robin and her husband made their home on one of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood, but they hadn’t really made any friends nearby.
When the 2021 freeze hit, she was relying on people she didn’t know. “I don’t want to get to know my neighbors in a crisis moment. I want to build community and actually get to know them.”
That’s when she knew she wanted to start a stand of some kind, and she settled on a plant stand after running across the Oak Alley Plant Stand page on Facebook.
With the intention of making neighborhood connections — and maybe a friend whose house she could walk to — Robin opened the stand in May.
Her plant stand is one of about 20 similar stands across Austin, and they are part of a sweeping movement toward the gift economy, where mutual aid, community care and Buy Nothing groups have created new (to many of us, at least) ways to meet our material needs. (Not to mention the social and spiritual ones, but more on that in a minute.)
In every state in the U.S., you’ll find examples of these grassroots efforts, including little stick libraries for dogs and little free sled libraries for people in snowy regions.
Robin is now known as “the girl who has the plant stand,” which has led to genuine friendships with folks around the block.
She’s in on a group text chat with the other plant stand owners, and that’s where they help each other find ways to set boundaries within their community or respond to disagreements. “Some of us talk every day,” she says.
Robin, who is a community housing program director, says that being a social worker gives her a good sense of how to balance generosity and setting limits. “People are receptive if you are clear about what the expectations are,” she says. “I’ll often ask, ‘Have you been here before?’ to break the ice and show them where the guidelines are posted.”
Ultimately, it’s her property and people who stop by are guests.
And she’s very happy to have them.
Robin loves chatting with people who stop by. Not to oversee their plant leaving and/or taking, but to make a genuine connection. She says it’s rewarding to watch people go so far as to propagate plants specifically to share on the stand.
Robin says that although there is generally a leave-one-take-one philosophy, the stand is open and available to anyone, regardless of their ability to give. “Seventy-five percent of the people who use the stand aren’t on the Facebook group,” Robin says.
Because the plants are free, people can try their hand at growing plants without it costing much money, she says. (The stand almost always has soil and pots available, in addition to living plants and seeds.)
Most plants are dropped off and picked up within a day or two. Robin can post about specific plants that have been dropped off, and they are usually gone within the hour.
During the hottest months of the summer, she closed the stand because it was too hot for most living things. “Just in that one month, I was feeling it. I missed it so much,” she says. “Our first day back after the break, all of our regulars stopped by. Kids on bikes. It was so good.”
Robin says having the plant stand takes about 5 to 10 hours of work a week, from managing the Facebook page, which has more than 1,200 followers, to tidying up the stand itself.
“Every day, there’s some sort of magic that happens,” she says. Sometimes, it’s the care that someone puts into labeling a plant. Or they take the time to water plants on the stand that need it.
“Someone will come to the plant stand and say, ‘I’m going through depression, and this is the highlight of my walk.’ I didn’t expect how deeply this helps people who are struggling,” she says “I can connect with someone on my front lawn.”
Robin knows this struggle. Both of her parents died in recent years. “You only know if you’ve gone through it. I’m a different person now,” she says. “This has helped tremendously with grief and connecting in a space that’s just my house.”
“All I wanted to do was be able to have neighbors that I could walk to their house and hang out,” she says. “The plant stand has cultivated so much more than that.”
Thanks for reading the second of this little two-part neighborhood series! I wanted to publish these before Saturday’s North Austin Good Neighbor Fest, which I’ll be at repping our Buy Nothing group.
I wanted to share about a recent interaction with a neighbor I met through both the Buy Nothing and Quail Creek Plant Stand groups on Facebook.
I’d posted on the plant stand page that I had dropped off some heart-shaped hoyas, a plant I’ve been keeping alive since my dear friend Alberto gave me a cutting nearly a decade ago. This plant had been his mother’s, and although it was thriving when he gifted me my cutting, it died in one of the recent freezes.
My hoya was still living. I’d already given a cutting back to Alberto, but I still had plenty to share.
Diane Tran, who lives around the corner, loves hoyas and does not have a heart-shaped one.
She didn’t get to the Quail Creek Plant Stand before the hoyas I posted about were gone, so she left a comment about not getting there fast enough. I offered her a leaf anyway.
A few hours later, she pulled up to drop off one of her hoya cuttings — we were doing what’s called a reciprocal giving, not the circular economy giving that is the basis of Buy Nothing — and we chatted on the porch for a few minutes.
She gave me some tips on my plants. I asked her about hers. She said she only had a “black thumb” before the pandemic. Now, plants have become a core part of her life. She does plants. It’s her thing.
This little plant exchange was so touching when I thought back on it. I might have already killed the plant she gave me, and who knows what will happen to that cutting I gave her, but it was a convenient way to say hello and meet a neighbor who otherwise would have been a stranger.
It was the same with Rachel, who I see now and then at the plant stand, which gets as much action or more than the food pantry around the corner, but there’s a different dynamic. The food pantry is more clearly mutual aid. The plant stand feels more like community care.
“I love how the stand brings together plant lovers,” Tran says later when I asked her about what the stand has meant to the neighborhood. “It’s a fun way to discover new favorites, get tips and share an abundance of propagations.”
An abundance of propagations, indeed.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend! If you like this newsletter, tell a friend. If you like this story, find a plant stand (or little free pantry) in your neighborhood and contribute to it. If you like how that feels, tell me about it: firstname.lastname@example.org
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