Learn how to organize a seed swap to exchange seeds and advice with gardeners in your community.
The value of seed saving and sharing is becoming increasingly apparent as we learn about biodiversity, food security, pollinators, and the nutritional benefits of food grown close to home. The humble seed is where it all begins! There are a multitude of reasons to grow, save, and share seed.
- Heirloom varieties continue to be passed down through generations, along with their stories.
- Plants grown from local seed are robust and adapted to local climatic conditions. The food we harvest is fresh, tasty, and nutritious.
- Sharing seed builds the community as we gather with other gardeners, help feed each other, and provide food security for our family, friends, and neighbors.
- Trading seed gives home gardeners new varieties to try.
No matter your reasons for wanting to save and share seed, look for a seed swap in your area during springtime. If there isn’t one nearby, it’s easy to organize one.
There are three basic components: Location, seed, and advertising. Other than that, there are no rules. You can make your seed swap simple by just exchanging seeds, or you can offer extras, such as speakers, demonstrations, giveaways, a raffle, and food.
1. Location, location, location!
First, find a venue with high visibility, or one that is well known. Be sure there is easy access and room for signs by the street. Hotels, which are typically located on main roads and most often have plenty of room for parking, have meeting rooms that can be rented for a day.
Many public libraries also have meeting rooms and parking, although they may not be on a main road. But they should be fairly easy for people to find.
Check with your County Extension office, too, as they might be able to provide a space to hold an event. Their mission is aligned with what you are doing, but their offices may be out of the way and unfamiliar to people who are not involved in agriculture.
If you want to start small, look into local businesses that like the idea, such as food markets and co-ops, coffee shops, garden centers, and secondhand stores.
Ask about fees and the hours the space is available. Allow at least an hour before and after the event for setup and break down. Also, find out if you can set things up the afternoon before, and make sure to ask if tables and chairs are available.
Pick a date and time. The last Saturday of every January is National Seed Swap Day. Here in Zone 5, we are usually under a bit of snow, and people aren’t thinking much about gardening, but it may be a date that works where you live.
Mid-February through the end of March is a good time to plan your event. The days are getting longer, and people are getting excited at the prospect of playing in the dirt. Decide if you want your seed swap to be a one- or two-day event. Saturdays tend to draw bigger crowds since more people are off work and are out and about running errands. I prefer a three- to four-hour day, but I’ve attended seed exchanges that lasted all day.
2. Gathering seed
Now for the star of the show: the seeds.
Contact local seed companies and ask if they’d be willing to donate some of their seed stock that didn’t sell that same year to your event.
The Safe Seed Resource List of the Council for Responsible Genetics is a list of seed companies and others in the business that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. They have agreed to not knowingly sell, trade, or buy genetically modified seed.
Run an Internet search for “organic seed” or “heirloom seed” for more options. Get specific and search for vegetables, flowers, and herbs, too. Request heirloom or open-pollinated seed, so your seed swappers can grow the seed and bring some back for trading the following year.
When a seed company makes a donation, be sure to ask for catalogs that you can distribute. They’re usually happy to send along their own promotional materials. Let them know you will mention them in your advertising.
Put the call out around your community that you are looking for seed, as local seed is hardy and adapted to the local environment. Loretta Sandoval, an organic farmer in northern New Mexico, says, “Locally adapted seed that has been raised in one region may be more resistant to stress and pathogens than the same variety raised in a different part of the country.”
Invite your gardening friends who have a stash of seeds. Use social media to get in touch with local farmers and gardeners, and ask them to donate seed. Call regional farmers’ markets and ask for a list of their vendors. Contact the farmers on the list to see if they would be willing to help out in any way. Call the local and regional garden clubs and native plant societies, and ask the county extension office to reach out to their contacts on your behalf.
Advertising does not have to be expensive. Ask local businesses to donate services to your free community event. Call on your friends to help out, too. Print flyers, and enlist your friends to hang them around town. Do interviews on local radio stations. Make plans for the interviews ahead of time, but do them the week of your event, so it’s fresh in people’s minds. Write a short article for the local newspapers. Some newspapers have a free bulletin board or announcement section, where you can advertise such events. Get published in as many newspapers as possible the week of the seed swap.
Talk to people. Word of mouth is sometimes more effective than advertising. You may even find volunteers this way, too.
If you want to pay for advertising, count on doing some fundraising. Call the newspapers and radio stations to get their rates. Figure costs, and put this information in the advertising for your fundraising events. Place a large, clearly marked donation jar on a table at the entrance to your event. Offer information about your fundraising efforts, and include information on gardening or seed saving.
A seed swap does not have to be expensive, but you may have to raise some money. Basic costs include the venue, advertising, shipping for seed, and other supplies, like pens, envelopes, tape, scissors, spoons, etc., to exchange, package, and label seeds.
Involve as many local businesses as possible by asking for space or service donations. The venue may donate the space, discount the fee, or share advertising costs. A local office supply store may donate needed office supplies, and your favorite eatery may donate food. Ask a supermarket for paper goods.
Hold bake sales, organize a raffle, have a yard sale with donated items, and place donation jars in selected businesses. Put a donation jar at all of your fundraising events.
Look for corporate sponsorship. Marilyn McHugh of the Cleveland Seed Bank suggests finding a local like-minded business to fund all or most of the expenses of your seed swap. In exchange, prominently display their name, contact information, and website in all advertising and at the event.
What else can you add to your seed swap? Invite local farmers and growers to do demonstrations and discuss seed starting and seed cleaning. Let people get their hands in the dirt. Get them excited about the upcoming season.
Other topics that can be discussed are pollinators, cover crops, soil health, beekeeping, raising livestock, and composting. Set aside a table for handouts. Include a resource list of books and website links for those who want to learn more at home. Make a page thanking the businesses and people who donated seed, funds, space, services, or time. Display the seed catalogs you received, and have gardening and seed saving books available for browsing.
Offer coffee, tea, water, and finger foods. Provide plenty of chairs and tables so people can sit down, read, eat, talk to other gardeners, relax, and enjoy their time there.
Seed swap success
Immediately after your seed swap, write a letter to local and regional newspapers explaining the event and its success, and thank everyone involved. Consider buying an advertisement and listing people’s names individually. Post photographs and thank helpers and donors on social media following the seed swap.
These are a few thoughts on organizing a seed swap, but there are more. The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library offers advice on organizing a seed swap, as well as comprehensive information on seed saving. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange also offers some great ideas for a seed swap.
You’ll create a new community by bringing together like-minded people at a seed swap. You will have helped educate gardeners about seed saving, and they will continue to educate each other. For years to come, your efforts will still be preserving biodiversity and heirloom varieties, improving people’s health, and expanding the local food economy. Let it start with a seed.
Learn more now about getting started with seed saving for and swapping with friends.
Originally from New Hampshire, Nan Fischer has spent the last 30 years in northern New Mexico. She is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange in Taos, New Mexico. Her hobbies include gardening, long lunches with friends, hiking, photography, reading, and experimenting in the kitchen.