Seed swapping is a great way to connect with fellow gardeners, learn about new plants and diversify the seeds you have available for the growing season.
Setting up a seed swap can be as easy as reaching out to a few neighbors for a trade, or as big as a community-wide event.
“It can be a great way to get to know fellow gardeners in your area and celebrate the upcoming growing season,” said Anna Libby, community education director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which holds an annual seed swap and scion exchange.
Heron Breen, research and development coordinator at Fedco Seeds, said that swapping seeds is a great way to unload your extra seeds while gaining new ones.
“[You] might have seeds left over from last year,” Breen said. “Rather than hoarding that extra, it’s really better to give it away or do something with it.”
Seed swaps are also a great way for gardeners to help keep seed diversity going.
“We really are on the verge of losing a lot of the agricultural diversity that it took 10,000 years of gardeners and farmers to create,” said Jean Vose, a master gardener based in Nobleboro. “Saving and sharing saved seeds [is] an important part of our worldwide food security.”
No matter the scale of your swap, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure it goes smoothly. If you want to find or set up a seed swap for you and your gardening community, here is what you need to know.
Check for existing local events
Before you set up a seed swap, you might want to see if there are any happening in your area. Check local community gardens, gardening clubs, libraries and granges.
A simple internet search could also help you scout out any existing events, Libby said. Vose said to check community Facebook groups, like local yard sale groups or neighborhood pages.
Vose, who has organized nearly a dozen seed swaps over the past six years, said that you might want to look in some more unexpected places as well.
“You want to check with local extension offices because they usually know what’s going on, particularly among master gardeners,” Vose said. “[Check] senior colleges [associated with universities in your area] and historical societies — believe it or not, a lot of historical societies are very interested in that.”
Pick a day and time
If you cannot find a seed swap that suits your needs, set out on planning your own. The first step, as with any event, is to pick the day (or days) and time to hold your seed swap.
The end of January is a great time to do a seed swap. The mid-winter timing helps people to gather the seeds that they plan to use before the growing season. Appropriately, National Seed Swap Day is this Saturday.
However, Vose said you might also want to consider a swap in the late fall at the end of the growing season to get a headstart on the next year.
“Late fall is good because people have already harvested,” Vose said. “Late October, early November, that’s probably what we’re going to do this year for the few organizations I’ve talked to that want to do seed swaps this year.”
Vose also said to make sure that the time parameters of your seed swap are clear. Having a beginning and end time for the event are also important, she said, otherwise swappers may linger well into the night.
Choose a format
There are two main formats for seed swaps: the bring-what-you-can, take-what-you-need format, with tables set out for swappers to peruse and contribute, or a one-to-one swap where gardeners interact with each other individually to exchange seeds.
Libby said that the best format for your seed swap will depend on the group and setting. The leave-what-you-can, take-what-you-want format has a fairly low barrier to entry and works best for larger groups.
“We use a leave what you can, take what you want model and find it works very well,” Libby said. “It removes some barriers to participation, it means folks can share or take the right amount for their particular garden or family, and it’s easier for the organizers.”
One-to-one exchanges might work better for smaller groups, especially among seed savers.
“If you want heirloom seeds that are open pollinated, non-hybrid, you want to do that,” Vose said. “Talk about it with your friends. Maybe you have a neighborhood where you have three of you that are gardeners and you all want to grow the local seeds, get together and do it together that first year and expand it.”
Reach out to swappers (and helpers)
In order to swap, you are going to need people to provide and take seeds. Luckily, many Mainers are interested in gardening.
“I would ask local businesses and organizations to help spread the word, and I’d reach out to folks I knew might be interested and ask them to invite their friends and neighbors as well,” Libby said.
Vose suggested submitting a press release to local papers with your contact information, as well as posting notices on community message boards and stores that might attract a gardening crowd. Libby said that social media is also a helpful tool for outreach.
Vose said that if you are hosting a larger-scale swap, you might also want to find people to help you out with setting up the swap, managing the exchanges and taking everything down once the event is done.
“It can be nice to think of a couple folks in your community who might help you with logistics and with making sure there is some seed available to get the swapping started as well,” Libby added.
Gather the tools
Many seed swappers will come with their materials already prepared to trade, but if you are organizing a seed swap, you should have materials on-hand to make the event go more smoothly.
“When we host our seed swap and scionwood [cuttings from trees used to propagate them asexually] exchange here at MOFGA, we provide small envelopes, pencils and masking tape,” Libby said. “Be sure to have plenty of materials for labeling seeds.”
You can take a budget approach to materials, too.
“I have rolled seeds in tissues and written on them with a Sharpie,” Breen said. “Whatever you’re using as a takeaway, make sure there’s something they can write on.”
Tables for holding the seeds are also important. Vose said that she uses at least three tables for her seed swaps, one each for herbs, vegetables and flowers. Sometimes, she even has an extra table for popular seeds like tomatoes.
You may also want containers to organize the various packets of seeds (though, for smaller swaps, it may be easy to spread all the options out on the table). Vose suggested produce containers, like the ones that carry mushrooms at the grocery store.
It can also be helpful to have some signage guiding people to the proper tables, as well as educational materials available for gardeners to pick up on their way out.
Seeds at swaps should be labeled with the name of the seed, its growing requirements, whether it is a hybrid or open-pollinated variety and whether it is treated or untreated seed. Certain crops should also have additional information that growers might want to know, like whether a squash is vining or bush, and whether a tomato is determinate or indeterminate.
Breen said that this kind of information is important, but you shouldn’t worry too much if it is incomplete.
“This isn’t shopping,” Breen said. “Put up a sign [saying] it is what it is, if you want more details, look them up online.”
Breen said you may also want to include your contact information along with the seed packets in case the person who takes your seed has any additional questions — or if they might want to trade seeds in the future.
Have a plan for cleaning up
As with any event, cleaning up after a seed swap is just as important as setting up. Libby said you’ll also want to think about a plan for anything that is leftover at the end of the swap.
Vose said that at the end of her events, she will encourage stragglers to take leftover seed for the community.
“End of the seed swap, I want to get [all of the seed] out of here,” Vose said. “I encourage people to share them with their neighbors [and] friends.”
Seed swapping is a gratifying experience for many gardeners. Vose said that you just have to have the will to organize it.
“Just do it,” Vose said. “Seed swaps are easy. It just takes a little planning.”