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Southern Appalachian Plant Society works to educate others about plants

Debra McCown • Apr 22, 2013 at 11:27 AM

When Tony Avent called 200 people in the crowded lecture hall "a bunch of saps," he meant it in the best way possible.

His audience was made up of members of a plant enthusiast group that goes by the acronym SAPS – short for Southern Appalachian Plant Society.

"This is really a good club that features education about plants," said Avent, a horticulturalist from North Carolina who was the guest speaker at the organization’s April meeting. "That’s fairly rare these days."

Founded about 15 years ago, SAPS currently has about 250 members. The group meets about nine times a year with featured speakers and also has several other events, including garden trips and an annual tomato festival.

"Our primary goal is garden education, along with a whole lot of fun," said Hugh Conlon, the current president of SAPS. "We bring in speakers from pretty much all around the country to deliver their message about some phase of gardening: vegetable gardening, fruit gardening, house plants and that type of thing."

All of the lectures are free and open to the public. Membership in the group is $15 a year and includes a monthly newsletter. It is open to anyone who wants to join – whether they are master gardeners or simply like the idea of growing a garden.

Before Thursday’s meeting at the Kingsport Center for Higher Education, some SAPS members were buying plants from fellow member Nancy Scott outside – mostly tomatoes, with some peppers and a handful of other plants.

"What we’re trying to do is get them to grow a lot of different varieties of tomatoes," Scott explained. "They’ll hopefully bring some of them back to the Tomato Fest."

Tomato Fest Chairman Dennis Marshall said the event is a big to-do in August at the Kingsport Farmers Market, where tomatoes are celebrated with tastings and contests where everyone who comes has a chance to participate in the judging.

"They can taste any tomato that’s entered, and that’s typically 50 or 60 varieties," Marshall said. "We’ll make a tomato sandwich for them: a good old tomato sandwich."

SAPS is one of several gardening-related organizations in the Tri-Cities and shares much of its membership with the Northeast Tennessee Master Gardeners Association, a separate organization whose members must complete a 12-week gardening class before they can join.

SAPS had its roots among local master gardeners, an offshoot of the master gardeners club that has since branched out with the formation of "sapling" groups focused on specific areas of gardening.

"You can grow things and eat what you grow, and you know where it’s coming from," said Johnny Suthers, a member of both and a master gardener advocate for the University of Tennessee, of why gardening appeals to so many people.

Plus, he said, making a garden is part of his family tree: it’s something his parents and grandparents did.

The master gardeners in the group have also dug their green thumbs into community service projects, including school cafeteria gardens where children learn to grow food at school and a downtown community garden outside a local church.

"Pretty much any community member who wants to could sign up for a space and say they’re going to put it to use and keep their plants in good shape," said Megan Shaffer, a master gardener and SAPS member involved with the Harvest of Hope community garden project.

"SAPS and master gardeners are incredible involved in the community," she said, adding that these "plant people" also involved in programs to beautify the city with plants – and programs that share knowledge on gardening.

More information on SAPS – including how to join, upcoming events and gardening information – is available online at the group’s website, which is http://saps.us/.

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