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How to Start a Seed Savers Exchange for Gardeners in Your Community

My husband and I are avid gardeners. Our yard isn’t huge, but it’s big enough for a 100-square-foot vegetable garden that provides us with fresh produce and helps us eat organic on a budget.

As much as we love our garden, we’re often frustrated that many gardening products are tailored to people with much larger plots. For instance, even when we buy the smallest packet of seeds available, it’s often more than our small-scale garden can use. Although you can always save the extra seeds for next year, sometimes one packet is enough to last several years, and not all types of seeds can be stored that long.

In addition to extra seeds, spare seedlings can also be a problem. When you start plants indoors, it makes sense to grow a few extras to ensure that enough healthy seedlings survive. Sometimes, you end up with more than you need, and it seems a shame to throw away living, thriving young plants.

As it turns out, there’s a solution to both these problems: a seed exchange. Rather than letting your extra seeds and seedlings go to waste, you can share them with others while also picking up free seeds and seedlings for your own garden.

How Seed Exchanges Work

Seed exchanges are a part of the ever-expanding sharing economy, a network of people who save money by sharing products and services instead of buying and selling them. In a seed exchange, gardeners get together to swap their unused seeds for others they can use. Gardeners can contribute seeds they’ve harvested from their own plants, seeds from crops that they no longer care to grow, or leftover seeds they don’t have time to use.

Seedlings or cuttings from plants can also be exchanged. Some gardeners even dig up unwanted plants from their yards to offer to others who can use them.

Exchanges fall into three main categories:

  1. Local Gatherings. The most common type of seed exchange is an informal gathering of neighbors with a common interest in gardening. One benefit of this type of exchange is that all the seeds are likely to be crops that work well in your local microclimate – the specific growing conditions in your area. If your next-door neighbors always have a flourishing garden, you can try out some of their crops in your own yard.
  2. Online Exchanges. If you don’t have many fellow gardeners to swap with, you can join an online seed exchange and trade seeds with gardeners from all over the country. Seed Savers Exchange, for example, is a nonprofit group dedicated to saving and sharing seeds from heirloom plant varieties. A $40 annual membership ($30 for students and seniors, $50 for families) gives you access to the exchange, where you can search through thousands of varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, and grains contributed by members around the world.
  3. Seed Libraries. A seed lending library maintains a “catalog” of seeds that members can take home and use in their gardens. Unlike borrowers who check out a book from a regular library, they don’t have to return the same seeds that they borrowed. Instead, they can pay the library back with any seeds saved from their own harvest. The best-known seed library is the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, California. However, there are roughly 450 other seed libraries around the world, listed at SeedLibraries.net.

Benefits of Seed Exchanges

Sharing seeds with other gardeners has many advantages over buying your own. Here are some of the reasons gardeners take part in seed swaps:

  • Save Money. A single packet of vegetable seeds costs anywhere from $1 to $7. If your garden contains around 30 different crops, as ours does, that adds up to between $30 and $210 a year. If you can get just half your garden seeds by trading with other gardeners, you can save $15 to $105 each gardening season.
  • Find New Varieties. If you buy your vegetable seeds in a store, your choices are often limited to the few most popular varieties for any given crop. Seed catalogs offer more choices, but each one still has a limited number of varieties. Sharing seeds with other gardeners, especially experienced ones who have experimented with several crops, gives you a chance to try plant varieties you’ve never heard of before.
  • Promote Biodiversity. Keeping rare seeds in circulation allows more species of animals and insects to thrive. The more species there are in an ecosystem, the healthier it is, and the harder it is for a single disease or natural disaster to wipe out the whole system.
  • Share Knowledge. When you get seeds directly from other gardeners, you can also get useful advice about how to grow them. You can learn which varieties grow best in your soil, as well as which insects and diseases to watch out for and how to combat them. Also, since people who like to grow food generally like to cook and eat it as well, you can learn interesting new ways to prepare the vegetables you grow.
  • Build Community. A seed exchange is a great place to meet folks who share your interest in gardening. By getting to know other gardeners, you have somewhere to turn for help and advice if you run into problems. You can even discover other interests you share, and possibly form lasting friendships.

Seed Exchange Benefits

Starting a Seed Exchange

If you’re interested in starting a seed exchange in your community, check out Seedy Sunday, the largest and longest-running seed exchange in Great Britain. It has a detailed guide to starting your own seed exchange, including an action planner to help you keep track of different tasks.

According to the guide, the four key ingredients of a successful seed swap are the organizers, seeds, venue, and publicity. However, if you expand your seed exchange to include extras like speakers, activities, and refreshments, then fundraising also becomes a crucial factor.

Here are several steps to help you get started.

1. Ask for Help

Hosting a seed exchange is a big job. It takes a lot of time and effort to plan the event, publicize it, manage finances, organize participants, set up the site, supervise activities, and clean up afterward. It’s not impossible to do on your own, but it’s much easier if you have a group of dedicated volunteers to handle different jobs.

The first place to look for volunteers is among your friends. If you don’t know enough people who want to help, put up notices in places where gardeners are likely to spend time:

  • Public libraries
  • Health food stores or food co-ops
  • Nurseries or home and garden stores
  • Community gardens
  • Nature centers
  • Internet forums, blogs, and discussion lists related to gardening

Start with a small core group of people you like and trust. If your seed exchange turns into a regular event, you can start formally assigning specific jobs.

2. Plan the Event

Once you have a group of reliable volunteers, hold a meeting to begin planning your seed exchange. Two good times to hold a seed exchange are in late fall, when the growing season has just ended and people have had time to collect seeds from their crops, and near the end of winter, when people are just beginning to think about their spring garden.

Also, consider what features you’d like your seed exchange to include. The main event, of course, is exchanging seeds with other gardeners, and that should be the focus of the day. However, you can make your seed exchange more exciting by adding a few extras:

  • Booths. A seed exchange is for trading seeds, not selling them. However, you can have vendors selling other items that gardeners would like, such as local produce, live plants, books, or crafts. Booths can also offer information about local resources for gardeners, such as community gardens, composting projects, environmental groups, or classes. A third type of booth could provide general gardening tips or demonstrations of techniques, such as tool sharpening.
  • Talks. You can attract more gardeners to your event by inviting experts to speak about gardening-related topics, such as the benefits of seed saving, how to harvest seeds from your vegetables, gardening in your region, or starting and transplanting seedlings. You could even expand your event to include films or demonstrations on food-related topics.
  • Refreshments. If you are planning a small-scale two-hour event, you can limit refreshments to drinks and snacks. However, if you expect your seed exchange to last all day, consider adding a café area managed by a professional caterer. Don’t forget to plan refreshments for your volunteers as well.
  • Contests. One way to spice up your seed exchange is with a contest. For instance, you could offer prizes to the gardener with the widest variety of seeds, the oldest or youngest gardener present, and the person who traveled farthest to attend.
  • Kids’ Activities. You can bring kids into the spirit of the event with child-friendly activities, such as face painting and crafts. Try looking online for some activities related to gardening, such as making art with seeds or sprouting seeds in cotton balls.

In addition to making your seed exchange more enjoyable, activities like these can bring in extra money to cover the costs of the event. However, they also require extra work, so think carefully before including them. Make a list of the activities you want and decide who is in charge of what. Continue to meet regularly with your fellow volunteers as the event draws closer to make sure your plans are on track.

3. Gather Seeds

The most important ingredient in any seed exchange is, of course, the seeds. There’s a good chance you may have more “customers” looking for seed than contributors with seed to offer. To make sure you have enough for everyone, it’s best to start collecting seeds well ahead of time.

Possible sources include the following:

  • Local Gardeners. Let gardeners in your area know about the seed swap in advance through the same channels you used to find volunteers. If you put out the word at the end of the summer before you plan to hold your seed exchange, gardeners should have a chance to collect and save seeds from their crops. The more seed collectors you find, the more choices you can offer at your seed exchange.
  • Professional Growers. Ask local farmers or nurseries if they have any extra seeds and plants to contribute.
  • Seed Companies. Try reaching out to seed companies and asking for donations. Since they’re in the business of selling seeds, you can’t expect them to give away many for free, but perhaps they’d be willing to give you leftover seeds from varieties that haven’t sold well or new varieties that they’re trying to promote.

Ask everyone who contributes seeds to label them clearly. Different varieties should be separated into bags or other containers, and each variety should have a note card containing as much information as possible. Ask seed suppliers to include the variety name, type of plant, source of the seed, growing conditions, appearance, and flavor. For example, a card might read, “Black Brandywine tomato: open-pollinated, heirloom, saved from last season; about 80 days to maturity; large, blackish-red fruits with delicious, sweet, slightly smoky flavor, but not a prolific yielder.”

Gather Best Seeds

4. Find a Venue

If you are planning a small, informal event, you can easily hold your exchange in someone’s home or garden. For a larger seed exchange with vendors, speakers, and other activities, you need a larger space – ideally one that’s free or very cheap to rent.

Possible locations include the following:

  • Church hall or basement
  • Community center
  • Meeting room at a public library
  • School
  • Large outdoor area, such as a park, with covered pavilions or rented tents

Before reserving a space, check it out carefully to make sure it meets your needs. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it hold the desired number of people?
  • Is it wheelchair accessible?
  • Does it have enough parking?
  • Does the site have electricity?
  • What kind of bathroom facilities does it have?
  • Is there a separate room for talks, films, or demonstrations?
  • Are there kitchen facilities?

Remember to reserve the space before you start publicizing your event, and make sure to find out details about which parts of the building you can use, where to pick up and return the keys, and who is responsible for cleaning up. Also, think about what extra equipment you should bring in for your seed exchange. You might need to add more chairs and tables, equipment for cooking and serving food, or audio-visual equipment. Discuss these needs with your group of volunteers.

5. Raise Funds

If you’re keeping your seed exchange small and informal, you can probably manage without raising any money at all. However, the bigger and more elaborate your seed exchange gets, the more money it takes to run. To avoid losing money on your event, you need to raise enough funds to cover your costs.

Here are some possible sources of income:

  • Entry fees
  • Donations, including cash, seeds, supplies, and the use of facilities and equipment
  • Sales of food and other goods
  • Grants from community or environmental organizations
  • Sponsorships from local businesses, such as natural food stores or garden centers

Before you begin raising funds for your seed exchange, put one volunteer in charge of the group’s finances. This person should keep careful records of all the money you bring in and spend. Make sure to get a receipt for every transaction. If you’re dealing with large sums, you can open a separate bank account just for your seed exchange and use it for all your transactions.

6. Promote Your Seed Exchange

Spread the word about your event as widely as you can. Make sure all your publicity materials cover the three W’s: what a seed exchange is, when it’s happening, and where you’re holding it. Don’t be afraid to use multiple channels to publicize your seed swap. The more forums you use to promote it, the more people you reach.

Tools for publicity include the following:

  • Posters. Post information about your event wherever there’s a public bulletin board, including schools, grocery stores, offices of community groups, and the local library. Make your poster eye-catching with bright colors and artwork, but also keep the three W’s clear and prominent.
  • Mailing Lists. Get your event listed on the calendar of any organization that’s likely to take an interest, including local gardening groups, botanical gardens, food co-ops, and your local chamber of commerce. Publicizing your seed exchange through their newsletters saves you the cost of doing a mailing yourself or delivering fliers by hand. Another way to reach gardeners in your area is through Mother Earth News. If you email the details of your event to the magazine at least three weeks ahead of time, it can send word to readers living in your area.
  • Media. You can send a brief, informative description of your seed exchange to your local paper, or contact reporters and ask if they would like to do a story about the event. If you don’t mind spending a bit of money, you could also place an ad in the classified section.
  • The Internet. Post information about your seed exchange on your own social media pages, or start a page for the seed exchange itself. List it in the “community” section on Craigslist and discuss it in gardening forums, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. You can even post comments about it on other people’s gardening-related blogs.

Promote Seed Exchange

Final Word

If you’re not sure whether there are enough people in your neighborhood who would be interested in a seed exchange, try bringing up the subject with folks you know. The organizers of Seedy Sunday report that if your experience is anything like theirs, you may be “amazed at the amount of interest and knowledge you find yourself tapping into.”

Many gardeners would love the opportunity to share their seeds and knowledge – they just don’t realize it’s possible. You have nothing to lose by asking.

What are your favorite sources of seeds for gardening?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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