Organizing seeds for a seed swap. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Normally, seed swaps are community events where gardeners gather to share stories, tips and — of course — seeds. But with social distancing and efforts to limit crowd sizes to control the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, seed swaps will likely focus more on the seeds this year. Here’s how to host one safely during these pandemic times.

“In the good old days, you would all sort of stand [around] the card tables, and people [could] go up to that person whose seed it is and learn about things,” said Heron Breen, research and development coordinator at Fedco Seeds. “A lot of seed swaps are really a connecting and socializing event. I think that’s hard to do right now.”

Setting up a seed swap is easy, though, and might be especially helpful this year as local seed companies struggle to fill orders due to safety restrictions put on staff due to the pandemic. Breen is confident that there are ways to safely swap seeds during the pandemic.

“Sharing those seeds is a great way to care for each other and a relatively low contact way of caring for each other,” Breen said. “It’s like sharing produce, but sharing it before it was grown.”

Many organizations that normally hold seed swaps are forging ahead with some adjustments. Anna Libby, community education director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said that it will hold its annual seed swap and scion exchange and programming online this year on March 28 with self-serve pick-up.

“There are so many great reasons someone might want to start a seed swap, especially given the renewed interest in gardening that began last year,” Libby said.

If you want to plan a seed swap for your community, Libby said to consider whether there is a local spot that is open to the public where a seed swap could be ongoing for a few weeks.

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“For example, my local library often hosts a seed swap in the spring,” Libby said. “They set aside a table and whenever the library is open folks can drop seeds off or take the seeds that are there. That way, there’s no need for a big crowd of people at once. People can swing by whenever they would like over a longer period of time and can check back to see if more varieties have been added.”

Jean Vose, a Knox-Lincoln Counties master gardener based in Nobleboro, said to consider a registration system.

“You could think about setting pick up times and setting reservations for that,” Vose said. “Come in at 9:30 a.m. and only have a certain number of people. Make sure the tables and chairs are all physically distant from one another and there are only a certain number of people in a space.”

And, of course, require masks. It may be wise to have a box of disposable masks on-hand for people who have forgotten theirs.

Outreach might also be a little different than in years past. In fact, an entire seed swap could be arranged through an email thread with your local gardening friends.

“Folks can swap or share whenever they have extra or if they’re looking for something in particular,” Libby said. “One plus is that this can continue throughout the growing season if folks have extra seedlings or harvests as well.”

You might also want to consider conducting your swap over video chat.

“Schedule a Zoom meeting where everybody shows what they have,” Breen said. “People who have seeds could raise their hand and type into chat how to get a hold of them. You could make breakout groups — everyone who wants to share tomatoes goes to this group, everyone who wants squash goes into this group.”

Whether your seed swap this year will be curbside and socially-distanced, held over video chat or some combination of the two, seed swapping is a great way to learn from your gardening community.

“It doesn’t have to be this big, huge meeting kind of thing,” Vose said. “It can just be your local neighborhood. I’ve been doing that for years.”