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 you can’t store all seeds 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 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 swap. 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 Swaps Work
Seed swaps, also called 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 they no longer care to grow, or leftover seeds they don’t have time to use.
You can also exchange seedlings or cuttings from plants. Some gardeners even dig up unwanted plants from their yards to offer to others who can use them.
Seed swaps fall into three main categories:
- Seed Libraries. A seed lending library maintains a “catalog” of seeds 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 they borrowed. Instead, they can pay the library back with any seeds saved from their own harvest. One well-known seed library is the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, California. However, there are more than 500 other seed libraries around the world.
- Local Gatherings. This type of seed swap is an informal gathering of neighbors with a common interest in gardening. One benefit of a local exchange is that all the seeds are likely to be crops that work well in your 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.
- Online Exchanges. Another way to exchange seeds with your neighbors is through online groups set up for this purpose on sites like Facebook or Nextdoor. If you don’t have many fellow gardeners to swap with in your area, you can join a national group like Seed Savers Exchange and trade seeds with gardeners worldwide.
Pros & Cons of Seed Swaps
Sharing seeds with other gardeners has many advantages over buying your own.
- Save Money. A single packet of vegetable seeds can cost anywhere from $1 to $10. If your garden contains around 25 different crops, as ours does, that adds up to between $25 and $250 a year. If you can get just half your garden seeds by trading with other gardeners, you can save $7 to $125 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 growing 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 exciting 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.
The biggest downside of swapping seeds is that it’s hard to get an accurate idea of a particular seed’s germination rate — that is, the percentage of seeds that sprout. This rate can vary based on where the seeds were stored or when they were harvested. Unlike large seed companies, small growers can’t always give you an accurate estimate of their seeds’ germination rate. However, given that the seeds are essentially free, you can make up for that by starting plenty of them to make sure you get a few healthy plants.
Joining a Seed Library
If you’re lucky enough to have a permanent seed library in your area, you can “check out” seeds from it at any time. After growing the crops, you can save some seeds from your harvest to replenish the library’s supply. Some seed libraries require you to pay back the seeds you check out, but others don’t.
Each library has its own rules for borrowing and returning seeds. For instance, the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library allows donations of either home-grown or commercial seeds as long as they’re open-pollinated (heirloom) plants. Hybrid plant seeds don’t breed true, so you often end up with offspring that look and taste nothing like the original plant. The library also has rules about how you must label seed donations.
You can search for a seed library near you on the Seed Libraries site. If you can’t find one, perhaps you and a group of like-minded gardeners can start your own. The Seed Libraries site also offers materials for people thinking about doing so.
However, you’ll probably find it easier to start by hosting a one-time seed swap. If it’s a success, you can expand your collection into a full-time seed library.
Hosting a Local Seed Swap
If you don’t have a seed library nearby, ask around to see if there are other gardeners in your community who like to trade seeds. Talk to neighbors who garden, inquire on local newsgroups, and bring up the subject at gardening workshops. Gardeners already involved in swapping seeds will probably be happy to let you in on the fun. One more person just means more types of seeds for everyone to choose from.
If other gardeners in your area seem to be interested in seed swapping, but no one’s currently doing it, consider organizing your own seed swap. That could mean anything from a casual gathering with a handful of people to a big event complete with speakers, activities, and refreshments. However, any seed swap needs a few key ingredients: a group of interested people, a date, a location, seeds to swap, rules for exchanging seeds, and publicity.
To put all these elements together, you just need to follow a few simple steps.
1. Form a Group
You can’t have a seed swap without people to swap seeds with. Thus, your first job is to find a core group of gardeners who all want to take part in a seed exchange. If you don’t have many interested friends, post notices in places where gardeners tend to spend time. Possibilities include public libraries, health food stores or food co-ops, nurseries, community gardens, nature centers, and social media groups.
2. Plan the Event
Once you have a group of interested gardeners, discuss when and where you’d like to hold your seed swap. Two good times for 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 gardens.
Decide how large you want your seed swap event to be. For your first seed swap, a small gathering of friends is probably easiest. However, if there’s already a larger gardening event that takes place in your community, such as a fall harvest fair or a series of lectures, you could consider asking the organizers to let you make your seed swap a part of that event.
If you decide on a casual gathering, all you need to do is choose a date and a place and notify interested parties by email. However, if you want to have a bigger event that’s open to the public, you may choose to add to the excitement with extra features like refreshments, talks on gardening-related topics, or activities for kids. Just remember, the more you add to your event, the more work and cost it will involve. If you decide to include extra features, split up the responsibilities among your group members so you don’t have to handle all the work yourself.
3. Gather Seeds
The most critical ingredient in any seed exchange is the seeds. There’s a good chance you may have more “customers” looking for seeds than contributors with seeds to offer. To make sure you have enough for everyone, it’s best to start collecting seeds well ahead of time.
Let other gardeners in your area know about the seed swap in advance through the same channels you used to connect with your core group. 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. You can also reach out to local farmers, nurseries, or even seed companies to see if they have any extra seeds or plants to contribute.
Ensure everyone who contributes seeds to your event knows you’re only interested in seeds from open-pollinated plants. Also, put a limit on the age of seeds you’ll accept. Most vegetable seeds stay good for two to four years in storage, but seeds from onions, leeks, parsnips, celery, and spinach typically last only a year.
4. Find a Venue
If you’re planning a small, informal event, you can easily hold your exchange in someone’s home or garden. For a larger seed exchange with multiple tables, speakers, and other activities, you need a larger space — ideally one that’s free or very cheap to rent. Possible locations include a church hall or basement, a community center, a meeting room at a public library, a school, or a large outdoor area such as a park — preferably with covered pavilions or rented tents in case of rain.
Before reserving a space, check it out carefully. Consider how many people it can hold, wheelchair accessibility, parking, bathrooms, and other features like electricity or kitchen facilities. Also, consider whether you would need to provide any extra equipment, such as chairs and tables, audio-visual gear, or equipment for cooking and serving food.
Once you find a place that meets your needs at a price you can afford, reserve the space before you start publicizing your event. Make sure to find out details such as which parts of the building you can use, where to pick up and return the keys, and who is responsible for cleaning up.
5. Set Rules
Before your event, decide on what the rules should be for exchanging seeds. One question to answer is how many seeds people are allowed to take. You can choose to set limits on how much people can take of a particular variety, how much they can take in total, or both. Some seed exchanges establish a rule that you can only take as much as you brought, while others allow new gardeners with nothing to contribute to take a limited amount, such as one or two packets.
Set some rules for donors, as well. Ask them to sort different varieties into bags, containers, or individual packets. If they’re providing packets, let them know how many seeds to include in each one. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says 20 to 30 seeds of a given variety is a good amount for many crops, but a few crops, such as corn, need a higher volume.
Also, let them know how to label their seeds. At a minimum, each variety should have a note card listing the name, type of plant, and source of the seed. However, labels are even more useful if they also include information about the 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.”
In some cases, donors may choose to bring bulk seeds in jars, bags, or plastic containers. To make sure new gardeners don’t get carried away and make off with a whole jar, provide some empty bags or envelopes, a pen for labeling them, and a sign to let people know how many seeds they can take from a given container.
6. Assemble Supplies
Consider what equipment and supplies you need to make your seed swap work. You need a table to display your seeds and a sign outlining the rules for swapping at a minimum. However, depending on your event’s size, you may also want to supply such things as:
- More tables and chairs
- Equipment for talks or demonstrations
- Prizes for contests
- Blank labels for people’s seed contributions
- Packets or bags for bulk seeds
- Scoops for dipping up seed from bulk containers
- A few starter packets of seeds to make sure there’s something available for early arrivals
- Signs to mark off sections for different types of plants
- Handouts with some general information about seed saving, such as this guide from Southern Exposure
The more equipment and supplies you need for your seed swap, the more money it will take to run. To avoid losing money on your event, you may choose to raise funds by charging an entry fee, requesting donations, or selling food.
7. Promote Your Seed Swap
Finally, spread the word about your event as widely as you can. Ensure all your publicity materials cover the three W’s: what a seed exchange is, when it’s happening, and where you’re holding it. Tools for publicity include the following:
- Posters on public bulletin boards at sites such as schools, grocery stores, offices of community groups, and the local library
- Event calendars for organizations such as local gardening groups, botanical gardens, food co-ops, and your local chamber of commerce
- Your own social media pages or a new page you start for the seed exchange itself
- The community section on your local Craigslist group, if it has one
- Other Internet sites, such as gardening forums, bulletin boards, and blogs
- Your local paper — either by posting an ad in the classified section or by contacting reporters and asking if they’d like to cover the event
Joining an Online Seed Exchange
If there aren’t any existing seed swaps in your area and you don’t want to set up your own, try looking online for other gardeners to swap seeds with. Sites to check include Facebook, your local Craigslist group, and Nextdoor, a social media site designed to help neighbors connect. If there aren’t any existing groups devoted to gardening, try starting a new discussion about seed swapping. List your city or neighborhood, what seeds you have to share, and some seeds you’re hoping to find, and see who responds.
National Seed Saver Groups
If you can’t find local gardeners online, try connecting with a national seed saver group. Through these groups, you can meet gardeners all over the country and exchange seeds with them by mail. National groups for seed and plant savers include:
- Seed Savers Exchange. This site is backed by a nonprofit group dedicated to saving and sharing seeds from heirloom plant varieties. All the seeds offered on the exchange are open-pollinated, are not patented or genetically engineered, and have previously been tested by the gardener providing them. Gardeners can exchange tubers, bulbs, cuttings, and roots through the exchange as well. Anyone can browse seeds, but you must create a free account to offer or request them. Users can’t charge for their seeds, but they can request a payment to cover shipping costs.
- Plantswap. Through this nonprofit site, you can swap seeds and plants with gardeners, both in your own area and around the country. Once you’ve created a free account, you can view listings from other members on a map and search them by location, category, or keyword. The site also includes a groups section for discussing plants with fellow gardeners and setting up local exchanges.
- Great American Seed Swap/Trade Project (GASSP). The GASSP is a public Facebook group for people who want to exchange seeds, plants, and bulbs. Once you join the group, you can create a “seed swap doc” with information about yourself, your growing zone, the types of seeds or plants you have to share, and the type you hope to find. Any of the group’s 27,000-plus members can contact you to offer their seeds or request some from you, and vice versa. Once you find someone interested in a swap, you can exchange addresses in a private message.
- R/seedswap. This Reddit group has approximately 9,000 members interested in seed sharing. Members post here to offer or request seeds, bulbs, or cuttings. Some are looking for specific plants, while others ask for suggestions about what is likely to grow well in their area.
Hazards of Nonlocal Swapping
Gardening experts interviewed by Mashable caution that there are risks to swapping seeds and plants with gardeners who don’t live in your area. David King, founder of the Seed Library of Los Angeles, notes that seeds taken from a plant grown in one area have likely adapted to its local climate and may not grow well in a different one. Plants can acclimate to a new setting, but he says this takes up to five years to happen.
A bigger problem with long-distance swapping is the risk of accidentally acquiring plants that are dangerous or illegal in your area. For instance, according to Mashable, it is unlawful to grow bamboo anywhere in New York because it’s too hard to contain. The United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA) also prohibits or restricts the shipping of endangered or threatened plants and plants that can carry harmful diseases and insects. It has particularly strict rules about shipping plants into or out of the U.S.
Kelly Lay, moderator of R/seedswap, says she sometimes has to warn members about seeds and plants that are illegal in certain areas. Representatives from the USDA also monitor the site and occasionally step in to block unlawful trades.
Be particularly wary of any unsolicited seeds you receive from overseas. According to the Better Business Bureau, in 2020, people across Canada and the U.S. received packets of seeds they hadn’t ordered from addresses in China. The USDA said this was most likely part of a brushing scam in which e-tailers mail out low-value items to randomly chosen people and then create fake positive reviews from the recipients. However, the USDA warned the recipients not to plant the seeds, as they could be invasive or otherwise harmful.
Saving and exchanging seeds is more than just a way to save money and try new crops. It can also be a step toward a more self-sufficient life, one in which you don’t need to depend on Big Agriculture for your food or even the seeds to grow it. And it allows you to be part of a community working to preserve the heirloom plant varieties that have all but disappeared from the world of commercial agriculture.
If you’re unsure whether there are enough people in your neighborhood who would be interested in a seed exchange, bring up the subject with folks you know. Many gardeners would love to share their seeds and knowledge — they just don’t realize it’s possible. You have nothing to lose by asking.