Seed swaps are a rewarding way to build community and share information about gardening, plant varieties, and each others' projects. Most seed swaps happen in late fall, winter or early spring, when seed crops have been harvested and when it's not too late to plant the seeds for the following year.
There are many ways to organize a seed swap. They range from small gatherings of friends to elaborate productions with workshops, meals, and more. There are also ongoing online seed swaps, but those aren't covered here. Even if you want to organize a large swap, a small one might be better to start with. Consider how many people you expect to attract, how much seed-saving and gardening experience they probably have, and how much seed they'll probably bring. Also, how will the people you want to attract find out about the swap? Will it be part of a larger conference or other event? Will it take place in a public space, and, if so, how far in advance do you need to reserve it? Will you want one table for the whole event, several shared tables, or one table for each participant? (We've seen this last arrangement work well with swaps that attract avid seed-savers, but in most cases the first two are better.)
Getting the word out: If your seed swap is part of a larger agricultural event, getting the word out can be as simple as including it in the program. If you only want to attract a small circle of gardening friends, it's as easy as picking a date that works for all and sending a message. However, in many cases, it's good to post notices at health-food stores, botanic gardens, community bulletin boards, social networking web pages, and the like.
Seed sources: Seed savers in your community can bring what they've saved and the knowledge of how to save it. Most seed-savers save more seed than they want to plant, and have extra to share. People who have bought seed for small gardens often have some left in their seed packets. Farmers may have leftovers from bulk packets of seed. Southern Exposure and other seed companies sometimes donate seeds to swaps. It's best to have at least one experienced gardener available to make sure everyone's seeds are well-labeled, to answer basic questions, and to make sure that your guidelines are followed regarding how much seed one person can take.
How many seeds one person can take: A) Dealing with bulk seed: It's good practice to supply small empty bags or packets and a method for labeling them. Clearly label bulk containers so that an overeager new gardener won't take a whole jar of bulk seed! Have a note about how many seeds to take of any given variety. 20-30 is often a good suggestion, but in some cases, especially for corn, this isn't enough to grow a crop for seed-saving and to maintain genetic diversity. You may want to offer larger samples to encourage people to save seed. For more information, see our guide to seed-saving for home use. B) How many varieties to take: At most seed swaps, the swapping isn't exactly one-for-one. Some people might call these seed give-aways. Establish guidelines at the beginning that work for how much seed is at your swap. For example, if a person comes empty-handed, can they still take seeds, and how much? We usually find that it works best to let these people take a packet or two. Many swap hosts ask that attendees not take any more packets than they bring. However, if lots of people bring bulk seed you may not want to place any limits. Participants may also want to make their own decisions regarding whether they will give the seed they brought away, or only exchange it.
What seeds not to accept: Make sure attendees know not to bring seed they've collected from hybrid plants, as it won't grow true to type. Also, don't expect very old seeds to be viable. Most seeds will remain viable for 2-4 years if kept in a cool, dry place, out of the light. Some seeds (onions, leeks, parsnips, celery, spinach, salsify) are only good for a year unless stored especially well. And of course, you don't want any GMO seed.
A few things hosts often supply: 1) Labels. It's good to supply blank labels and to encourage anyone bringing seeds to make sure they are labeled with the crop type, the variety name, and the date of harvest, packaging, or sale. More detailed varietal descriptions and growing instructions can be useful, especially for beginning gardeners and for very unusual seed. 2) Signs. In addition to making guidelines clear, signs help keep the swap organized. For example, you might divide the swap into sections according to plant family, or according to root, leaf, fruit, and other types. 3) Packets. If you expect anyone to bring bulk seeds, it's good to supply paper packets or tiny ziplock bags for people who take the seed to put their samples in. Both can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. 4) Scoops. It's ideal to have an appropriate size of scoop for each bulk variety. Powder measuring kits, with their various small scoop sizes, work great. 5) Starter seed. This way, you'll have seed on the table from the beginning, and any early drop-ins can get the idea more quickly. 6) Handouts. For example, you may want to provide our Guide to Seed-Saving for Home Use, information about the importance of crop diversity, or general gardening information. Seed companies with a seed-saving focus, such as SESE, may provide catalogs to hand out.
Leftover seeds: Seeds left at the end of a swap can be a resource for a community garden, for a local NGO working for sustainable agriculture, and/or for whoever hosts the swap. If you plan to host multiple swaps in one year, you can keep seed to start off the next swap.