Share the Seed: How a Seed Swap Works

Ozark Pot Luck and Seed SwapBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Swapping seeds is both fun and addictive. I remember the first time I began swapping seeds with other seed-junkies in 1999, using a then obscure method of communication known as the internet.  Back then, most of the people I knew did not have or even know what email was.  Finding a group of people who loved to trade and talk seed was like finding a long-lost friend.  I was instantly hooked, both with seed swapping and the internet!

It didn’t take long before I began hosting large online seed swaps, better known in the seed swap community as a Round Robin.  Some of the online swaps could involve hundreds of participants – all from different corners of the United States.  Seeds were mailed to the host, who then would divide all of the seeds between participants out using what is called a “want” or “wish”  list of items for each participant. It’s a big job and one that takes time and thoughtfulness.

My first Round Robin swap had around  40 participants.  Soon packages began filling the mailbox.  Every one of those people trusted me to sort everything out and return to them new and interesting seeds.  It was a lot of work, but it was well worth it.  I met so many wonderful people and eventually built up a large collection of seeds.   These seed swaps also encouraged me to begin saving my own seed.

Many years later and I am once again hosting a seed swap.  Once again, I used the internet to help spread the word throughout the community, but this time the swap will take place in person.  Every swaps should have a theme and I decided mine would be called the Ozark Pot Luck & Seed Swap.  I wanted to include a pot-luck to the festivities, because food is such an integral part of why we garden and save seed in the first place.  Sharing a meal is also a great way for participants to get to know one another before the trading begins.  After all, getting to know new people, reconnecting with old friends, and sharing our experiences and passion for gardening with others is a huge part of what a seed swap is all about.

This article began as a brief response to questions posed to me by people who wanted to attend the swap, but who had never been to one before.  All of the questions I received were both specific and important, especially for anyone who is planning to organize or attend a seed swap.  My brief responses turned into a flood (I am a writer, after all!) and this article was born.  If you have questions or suggestions about organizing or running seed swaps, I’d be pleased if you would leave your comment at the end of the article.   On to the questions:

What exactly is a seed swap?

A seed swap is when a group of people trades, barters, swaps, exchanges or gives away their extra seeds, seedlings and plants.  Sometimes, the seeds are saved by the individual and sometimes they are commercially produced.  Many wonderful heirlooms are exchanged at seed swaps.

My personal feeling is that nothing should be bought or sold at a seed swap and there should never be a fee for attending or participating in a swap.  Of course, a group can decide whether or not to allow participants to sell certain items.  There should also never be a fee to participate or attend any seed swap.  The only exception might be when the group needs to pay for a meeting place or other special needs the group may have.  In these cases, the group should agree beforehand on all expenses and how to pay for them.

For the upcoming seed swap I am hosting, I would like to encourage participants to focus on seeds and plants that can be eaten; such as vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, grain crops, etc.  Food is one of the most important aspects of being self-sufficient and sustainable.  That being said, swaps generally shouldn’t  be limited to any one kind of plant group – that is, unless you are a member of a group or society whose sole focus is on one thing – roses for example.  Limiting the types of seeds or plants that people can trade, reduces the number of participants. Participants should feel free to bring flowers and other types of plants and seeds.

Many people who are interested in seed swaps are often also interested in saving their own seed.  Because of this, most participants look forward to the opportunity to trade for as many heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as possible.  This makes sense, since the only way we are able to save our own seeds is to grown open-pollinated plants.   Although you should not save seeds from hybrid plants, hybrids also play an important role in the garden and should be welcomed at the seed swap.

2009 Ryan Griffis

How is a seed swap run?

  • There are several different ways to run a seed swap.   For the one I am hosting, participants will simply lay out their items on a table and group them into Trades, Special Trades and Giveaways.   Once the swap begins, everyone will walk around the tables looking through each other’s seeds and making swaps on the spot.  It’s a little chaotic, since everyone there has their own seeds on the table while looking at other’s seeds all at the same time!  It’s kind of like a giant rummage sale where everyone is searching for the best deal!

Can I sell my plants or crafts at the seed swap?

  • Not at this time. The seed swap is strictly for sharing.

What should I do to get ready for the seed swap?

  • Gather up your seeds, seedlings and plants, and then decide how you would like to offer them to other participants. For example: 1 large packet of squash seed can be broken up into 5 smaller packets. Just divide the seeds evenly between the packets. Instead of having only one trade, you now have 5 trades. Also, breaking down seed packets allows more people to have an opportunity to try out more kinds of seeds, which is why people come to seed swaps.
  • Gather materials that you can use to make extra seed packets, such as pens, paper, tape, envelopes, little plastic bags, etc. You can make simple seed packets out of any kind of paper, just be sure they are well-sealed. Make extras for using at the seed swap – you never know when you’ll need one, or two, or four!
  • Label all hand-made seed packets with as much information as you can provide! The date the seeds were saved and/or packaged for use, plant type (broccoli), variety (Waltham), days to germination, days to maturity and planting depth. You can also add any special notations you feel are important to the cultivation of that plant or seed. Including, sun, soil or water requirements, height, bloom color, etc. If you saved the seed, write your name and contact info on the packet as well. This could be important for the next person growing out those seeds.
  • Find a sturdy box to put all your stuff in and bring it to the swap!

Photo1392

How many seeds make a good trade?

  • That depends on several factors such as how many seeds you have, how big they are, how rare or unusual they are, if they have good or poor germination, if they’re difficult to start from seed and so on. The same goes for plants.

A good rule of thumb for making seed packs:

  • Try to give what you think is fair, but enough that the person who got them has a reasonable chance of growing out at least a dozen, healthy plants.
  • For tiny seeds, like broccoli or radish, ⅛ teaspoon (one half of ¼ tsp.) of seeds equals about 50 seeds. This is more than enough for someone to grow a garden full of broccoli. Smaller packs of 25 are good if seed is limited.
  • For medium seeds like tomatoes and peppers 12-25 seeds is an average size.
  • For large seeds like squash and melons, 10-15 seeds is enough for most gardeners to get a good crop.
  • If you have a lot seeds or several packs of the same seed – or if you just don’t want to fiddle with making smaller packets – simply trade whole packets to the first person who asks.

Are trades always “equal”?

  • Not necessarily. It all depends on the individuals involved. Most people are more than generous with both trades and free seed.

Things to keep in mind when packaging seed:

  • Don’t trade out-dated seeds without first telling the person you’re trading with or marking it on the seed pack. Old seeds have lower rates of germination than fresh ones. Many people are more than willing to accept the risk, but no one likes surprises at planting time.
  • If you have very special seeds or plants that you only want to part with for something very specific – put a little sign or label on it that says – FOR SPECIAL TRADE ONLY
  • If you have a ton of seed (perhaps from saving your own), please feel free to give them away. Everyone loves freebies! Simply put them in a box labeled FREE or GIVEAWAYS.

Photo1275

What should I do with leftover seeds I don’t want?

  • If you have seeds left over at the end of the swap that you do not want, you can leave them with the host who will make them available at the next seed swap, or donate them to a community garden, a school, etc.

Last but not least, always keep in mind that there is no right or wrong at a seed swap!  The most important thing is that everyone have fun!

Happy Gardening!

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2012 Jill Henderson

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12 responses to “Share the Seed: How a Seed Swap Works

  1. I love the idea of a seed, seedling, plant swap.
    Thanks for all the great tips.

    • Thanks, Martha! Glad you enjoyed the article! Swaps are a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to ours on the 4th. Don’t know where you are in the world, but if you’re in West Plains, come on over for the seed swap!

  2. This is how we met! 🙂 Great article!

  3. Jill, plan on coming over on the 4th. I was wondering the time. becky

    • Hi Becky! It’s March 4th at the Yellow House in West Plains. It starts at noon with a pot luck, followed shortly by the seed swap. So glad you’ll be coming, it’ll be nice to see you!

  4. Wow! Those ‘green’ and black beans in the picture above are beautiful. What variety is that? Where can I get some seed?

  5. Sunbender, I wish I could tell you! That was a stock photo I used for the Seed Swap page and it had no identifying info on the beans pictured. They are gorgeous, aren’t they? If that’s a for real bean – it’s probably a very old. My guess would be a southwest Indian tribe or perhaps even early South American. If you ever find some, let me know! 🙂

  6. Hi, I was looking at hosting an online seed swap. How do you handle return postage? Did you have them send money with their seeds to cover it, include a SASE, or PayPal the money when postage was due? I’m unsure of the best way to handle it.

    A SASE probably wouldn’t hold all the seeds swapped. Charging ahead may be too much or worse yet not enough to cover postage. I was thinking Paypal would probably be best, as long as all involved had an account.

    What do you suggest?

    • Hi Erin. When I did online seed swaps, everyone sent the seeds they wanted to swap in a padded envelope (the post office won’t allow bulky seeds in a regular paper envelope and if one happens to slip past them the seeds often get crushed). Participants either included the same amount of postage stamps for the return postage as it cost to send and I recycled their original envelope, or they included a seperate self-addressed stamped envelope. The idea was that they were to recieve a similar amount of seed as what they sent in, so return shipping costs should be the same. No money is exchanged, only seeds.

      Keep in mind that hosting a seed swap is time and labor intensive and a lot of people will be counting on you to do it right. If you haven’t already, may I suggest checking out the extensive seed swap at GardenWeb.com – it’s a great place to connect with other swappers and learn the ropes! Have fun and let me know how your swap turns out!

  7. Pingback: The Ozarks Fall Plant & Seed Swap West Plains, MO Saturday, October 13, 2012 | Friends of the Garden Daily News – The FOG Blog

  8. Pingback: Second Bi-Annual Seed and Plant Swap West Plains Sunday, March 3rd | Friends of the Garden Daily News – The FOG Blog

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