Last night we hosted a seed exchange for gardening friends, and a fabulous time was had by all.
Seed saving and swapping is an ancient tradition, one I imagine must go all the way back to when humans first began to cultivate plants for food and other uses. Seeds have been valuable commodities in many cultures, and I see seed circles like the one we had last night as a way to envision and begin creating a culture that again values and appreciates seeds as critical to sustaining life. I see sharing seeds as an act of hope.
Last night, as friends gathered in our home bringing offerings of all kinds of seeds of beloved plants, I imagined our little seed sharing circle as part of a long chain of seed history. These tiny little bits of plant matter spread on my coffee table contained the potential for an array of medicinal and culinary herbs, flowers, vegetables, and fruits that enrich and sustain our lives. Many of the plants that will grow from these seeds have been cultivated and stewarded by our ancestors for millenia. Sharing seeds is a way of connecting with community, with our ancestors, and with the web of life on the planet. And it's also fun.
As we pored over the assembled packets, jars, and bags of seed, we drank a variety of home ferments -- blackberry mead, quince mead, and crabapple scrumpy -- and talked about gardening, food, politics, and all sorts of other things. Once the seed frenzy was over, we feasted on a meal of all-local foods, a topic for another blog post sometime soon.
Once everyone had unloaded their seed offerings, there was an amazing array of vegetable, flower, herb, and native plant seeds. Everyone left with lots and lots of seed and no one spent any money. Hurrah!
Some highlights were: bronze fennel, milkweed, and angelica from Jeanie; salsify, paw paw, cockscomb, tulsi basil, nicotiana, and Tennessee vining pumpkin from Dana Dee; and all kinds of amazing flower seeds from Shane, including an heirloom edible black hollyhock variety called "The Watchman" and some very enticing zinnias, asters, columbines, and canterbury bells.
We also processed a bunch of saved seeds from the garden, including marigolds and Mexican sunflowers, and the much-loved hibuscus sabdariffa - red sorrel - the "red zinger hibiscus."
If you are interested in swapping seeds, the most grassroots way to go is to get a group of gardeners together in someone's home. Locally-grown seeds are going to be better adapted to your growing conditions than ones from far away, and don't require cross-country shipping. Visiting with other gardeners as you share seeds gives you the chance to learn about different varieties, and I always come away from local seed swaps with valuable tips, ideas, and stories from fellow seed swappers. Often I discover plants I never would have found in a seed catalog, and seed swapping enables me to try out a few seeds of a new plant without having to buy a whole packet of seeds.
In addition to local seed sharing gatherings, there are also regional and national networks of seed swapping, and a number of online seed swaps. You miss out on the conversation and community by swapping seeds online, but you do often have access to a much greater variety of seeds.
Here's a link to a list of some seed exchange networks and here are a few good online swap sites:
Finally, if you want to get involved in the biggest seed swap out there today, you can join the Seed Saver's Exchange (SSE). Members receive the Seed Savers Yearbook with thousands of listings from people all over the US (and a few in other countries) offering saved seeds for sale or trade. I highly recommend becoming a member of SSE for anyone interested in heirloom seeds, food security, gardening, or food history. Just skimming through the Yearbook is a valuable way to learn about the incredible diversity of cultivated plants available to gardeners--far beyond the very few varieties that make it to supermarket shelves today.
Sharing seeds is one small but powerful act in the big project of creating sustainable community. Seed networks are part of a culture that values life, a way of living that honors traditions of the past and imagines a verdant future. I'm grateful to be connected to the web of seed savers and gardeners and plant lovers out there digging and cultivating and sowing and harvesting plants handed down for generations. Long live the seed swap!