This coming weekend, one of our local Transition groups in Los Angeles will offer a Vegetable / Herb Seed Swap. We’ve held several seed swaps before — one each spring and one each autumn for our year-round Southern California growing season.
Seed swaps are lots of fun. People gather to exchange seeds, but at the same time they swap garden stories, garden tips, and generally connect with each other around food gardening.
We call ours a VEGETABLE / HERB seed swap so that we are making it clear from the very start that this garden event isn’t about ornamental flowers. Our group sets out to encourage people to grow food.
In part we do this because food really is the way to people’s hearts. But for more sobering reasons as well, including the vulnerability of our food supply , peak phosphorus , demographic crisis in farming , climate change impacts on Calif agriculture , peak oil, “peak everything,” and more. A seed swap is only one of the many ways our local group promotes local food production.
It’s very easy to create a seed swap. Our first time around, we followed the how-to put out by Food Not Lawns. There are several styles of seed swap. One is sort of “swap meet style” where each participant has a little section of table and arranges one-on-one swaps with passers-by.
We have tended to use a version that is more “community” oriented. As participants enter the room, the tables are labeled by plant family. There is a table for “HERBS” and another for “BENEFICIAL FLOWERS” (those that attract beneficial insects or are otherwise functional). We stick a label in a remote corner for purely ornamental flowers. Each participant distributes his/her offerings onto the various tables around the room. This style of swap takes people out of the “it’s MINE” mindset and gently coaxes them into sharing.
To “seed” your seed swap — to assure that you will have enough material and adequate diversity of offerings — you probably want to either (1) invite someone you know who has a lot of seed, or (2) provide some seed to start out with. For our first seed swap, we sent away to a seed catalog and got a batch of miscellaneous seeds. Most seed vendors cannot sell seeds with a date older than a year, even though that seed is still quite viable (will still sprout). Thus the vendors will often offer this post-dates seed to nonprofits for minimal charge. The catch is, you don’t get to pick out what they send you.
Now that we’ve been doing seed swaps for a while, we simply box up what is left behind at one swap (discarding post-viability items) and save it to “seed” the next one. We also bring in self-saved seed from home.
We publicize that our seed swaps are open to everyone. “Even if you don’t have seed to share, come and take home a sample.” Our objective is to get more people growing vegetables, and every little bit helps.
Having extra jars of home-saved seed around helps when we get a lot of people joining in who didn’t bring seed. However in our experience, newbie organizers are more likely to fear that they’ll be overwhelmed by people arriving empty-handed than will really happen. In our experience, most people bring at least something, and most are rather conservative in what they take.
We do continue to remind participants not to take more than half of the seed that is there. (Food Not Lawns’ suggestion).
While we have people gathered together, we usually make a brief presentation on one or more of the following:
- what is a hybrid? and why can’t you save seed from them? After this portion of the talk, we typically see people running through their tomato seeds and hiding many of their offerings in pockets or purses! Hybrid resources here
- seed viability – how long a given seed might be able to be stored and still sprout to grow out a healthy, productive plant. The answer varies by vegetable: for parsnips that might be 6months, for the onion family a year, and for beans as long as 7 years! Vegetable seed viability chart
- what is a GMO? and why don’t we want to be planting them in our resiliency gardens? We encourage people to make their future seed purchases from companies which have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. GMO resources here and here
The idea is to help people be better seed shoppers, and better seed swappers. We have found that for time management and calendaring purposes, classes on “how to save seed” are better scheduled approximately two months in advance of the actual seed swap, and that classes on growing seedlings are better offered on a different day.
In our experience, a well-publicized seed swap is very attractive. We gain a bigger crowd if we publicize the seed swap in local papers and make sure there are fliers out at venues around town, than if we simply publicize internally to people who already know our group.
In our publicity, we remind participants to bring junk mail envelopes to carry home their bounty. That way we don’t have to scurry around looking for single-use items.
A seed swap is a great way to introduce people to the ideas of Transition. We have a sign-in sheet, which is a way to bring people onto our mailing list of event announcements. We typically put out materials about peak oil, the Transition process, articles about the Transition movement (Orion, CSM), and fliers about our upcoming events. But displays and papers aside, it is usually the atmosphere at the seed swap — of connection and community and delight about growing food — that brings people back to our future events.
At one of our seed swaps, several people gathered together to create an “heirloom vegetable buying club.” Their idea was that they didn’t need full packets of seed, but by pooling their purchases, they could grow more variety.
Last autumn, we created a Homestead Celebration. We invited in a well-known local homesteader as a speaker, and he also helped facilitate a discussion circle on city chickens.
At this autumn’s seed swap, we are including a Local Foods Recipe Exchange, inviting people to bring copies of recipes which answer the question “What do you do with all those vegetables?”
At the autumn seed swap, we tend to promote our group purchase of bare root fruit trees program, our garden classes, and other Transition-related events.
As we build a more resilient society, I believe seed swaps will become an essential fiber within urban agriculture. Urban farmers rarely have sufficent land to grow out a given variety to adequate scale to assure genetic diversity. Even if we urban gardeners only grew one variety of a certain vegetable, we’d occasionally need to refresh the gene pool. That’s where an infusion of seed from a neighbor comes in. Last but not least, as urban agriculture really gets going, we will likely return again to the development of localized varieties — that special variety that is well-adapted to your immediate microclimate. And local seed swaps probably will be the only way to access these new delights. In the mean time, we’re creating the societal framework for that essential future exchange, by getting people used to getting their vegetable seeds from a new source: each other.
So if you’re in Los Angeles on Sunday, Oct 3, come join us at our seed swap!
- Why You need Edible Landscaping
- Why Victory Gardens? (doc)
- What Will We Eat When the Oil Runs Out? (doc)
For information about the Environmental Change-Makers seed swap (Oct 3, 2010)
For information about Transition activities in the greater Los Angeles area