For the third year in a row, Pleasantville couple Ashley and Nancy Sweda will invite the public to attend their annual perennial flower seed exchange hosted at their property, Full Circle Farm & Artisan Center. However, while the event, which takes place Saturday, may nominally be about trading plant seeds and flowers, Ashley Sweda sees the exchange of sustainability ideas and the friendships formed as an equally important part of the festivities.
“We love sharing plants with people,” Ashley Sweda said. “It’s just smiles and new friendships and, oh, everything looks beautiful.”
Ashley Sweda has spent roughly a decade transforming his property, which once hosted oil wells, into an epitome of sustainable living. A former nature professor at the Pennsylvania State University, he grows a wide variety of plants around his home and seeks ways to reduce energy usage as much as possible, and is happy to tell others how they too can take up the lifestyle.
“We’re all about education,” Ashley Sweda said. “We don’t sell, we don’t have corn and soy beans.”
What the couple does have are plants like radishes, parsley, basil and more. While many of these plants can be used for eating, the Swedas look beyond just edibility, and use their vegetation in a multitude of ways.
For example, there is a collection of lemon basil growing among the gardens of Full Circle Farm. These strong-smelling plant can be rubbed on the skin to act as a natural insect repellent, warding off pests like mosquitos and flies.
Crops of lavender are converted into soap, while pickings of peppermint are used to flavor the couple’s tea. Comfrey is made into a natural fertilizer to keep the other plants growing strong. These are only a few examples of the usages Ashley and Nancy Sweda get out of their garden crops.
“The versatility is tremendous when you’re looking at herbs,” Ashley Sweda said.
These crops are not grown in the manner of a traditional farm. Rather than the rigid rows and lines of a regular farm, Full Circle Farm has its crops grow intermixed in a more garden-like environment. According to Ashley Sweda, this promotes healthiness among the plants, as it keeps a disease that may affect only one kind of crop from wiping out everything.
Indeed, in many ways Ashley and Nancy Sweda care for their property in a very different style from others. The grass that grows on the farm is allowed to stay taller than usual, with an ideal height of 6 inches or more. Ashley Sweda said the longer grass also has longer roots, which keeps a strong hold on the dirt underneath the farm and prevents it from becoming loose.
Further, dandelions and other plants many would consider weeds are allowed to grow throughout the yard, providing plenty of flowers for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
These growing patterns, while atypical for a farm environment, are found everywhere in the wild, the very thing Ashley Sweda hopes to emulate.
“The concept of sustainability is following the rules of nature,” he said.
Full Circle Farm’s dedication to sustainable living extends beyond just the plants grown there. One of Ashley Sweda’s proudest achievements is a man-made pond situated just beside his farmhouse. The pond was filled three years ago through a creative method and has served as the home to multiple forms of wildlife.
After digging the spot that would become the pond, Ashley Sweda further dug a series of trenches running from structure on the farm to the pond site. He then laid pipe in these trenches and connected the tubes to the gutters of each building. Whenever rain falls, the gutters collect the water and funnel it down the pipes into the pond, keeping it full despite the lack of a natural spring or other water source.
“To me, that is what you call sustainability to the max,” he said of the pond.
With only a single inch of water, according to Ashley Sweda, the pond receives roughly 2,200 gallons of water. That water creates a habitat for the blue gill, bass, sun fish and minnows that live in the pond.
While the fish were imported in, the pond has also naturally grown an ecosystem of varied lifeforms. A legion of frogs have taken up residence in the pond, while animals like deer and even a bear have come to visit. In fact, the very first day the pond fully filled up, Ashley Sweda was astonished to spot a blue heron and kingfisher bird land in a nearby tree to watch the waterhole for fish.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘build it, and they will come,’” he said.
The entire project cost around $850, which Ashley Sweda called cheap compared to the benefits. Not only has the pond provided a scenic natural view right outside the farmhouse, but the Swedas eat the blue gill fish and cattail plants that live around the farm. Ashley Sweda said that cattails are “the least utilized edible plant in the United States,” and that many people may not be aware every part of the plant can be eaten at a different time of the year.
Beyond just food, the blue gill fish also provide a fertilizer for the various plants around the farm. The Swedas work hard to ensure “nothing leaves this place,” according to Ashley Sweda, with many plants and animals getting recycled to help growth elsewhere. This practice is what gave the property its name, Full Circle Farm.
This kind of lifestyle is known as permaculture, which is a system of thinking dedicated toward taking ideas from nature and using them in a variety of ways.
The hunt for more sustainable methods never seems to end on the farm. Ashley Sweda is currently in the process of constructing an outdoor greenhouse. What originally started as a project to keep moisture out of the basement has evolved into a more full-scale enterprise. The positioning of the basement means that the sun shines on it frequently throughout the day. Therefore, building a greenhouse will capture lots of heat, which Ashley Sweda said will warm many other areas of the house and reduce a reliance on electrical heating.
He is also in the planning stages of a natural hose system that promotes growth. Ashley Sweda hopes to use a series of containers and tubes to direct some of the rainwater from the gutters into a watering hose. He will place comfrey inside of the containers to ferment in the water, which will make the sprayed liquid even healthier for plants.
Although many of the methods Ashley Sweda utilizes may seem new or innovative, he said a lot of them go back for centuries, and even millennia. The use of comfrey to fertilize plants spans back for around 3,000 years, and even has traditionally seen use to help heal broken bones.
“That’s how they healed wounds before they had doctors and stores,” he said.
Ashley Sweda views many of the traditional folk remedies as lost, and he hopes through his example than other people can learn from him. That is, in fact, one of the purposes of the seed exchange, according to him. The event allows him to meet other people interested in sustainable living, and the attendees can give various tips to each other to help promote their own efforts. Further, it provides a way for farmers to get ride of some perennial plants, which must be culled from time-to-time to prevent them from overgrowing, while not completely getting rid of the vegetation.
More than that, Ashley Sweda enjoys the friendships that he sees get made at the exchange. When they first held it three years ago, Ashley and Nancy Sweda expected people to only stay for around 15 minutes or so. Instead, attendees chatted with each other for hours, and many new connections were born between people that lived several states away.
“The exchange of information — that’s, oh, I can’t get enough of it,” Ashley Sweda said when asked what gets him excited about the exchange.
He explained that the event was born out of the mission statement of Full Circle Farm & Artisan Center, which is “to encourage healthy and sustainable living through educational programs relating to permaculture, progressive and creative agricultural practices and to provide a nurturing environment for students of all ages to explore their creativity through a variety of art mediums and experiences.”
The Swedas are anticipating a larger crowd than usual for this year’s event, as they have stepped up their online advertising. They drew a crowd of around 30 people last year, with attendees coming from as far as Cleveland, Ohio, and Butler, New York.
The seed exchange will take place Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m. The farm is located at 20560 Carsonville Road, Pleasantville. The event is open to the public, and even people without plants to exchange are invited to come. Empty planting trays and pots will be available, and Nancy Sweda will show off her stained glass art. The exchange will be held rain or shine.
Ray can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.