I’m not quite sure how I ended up with so many seeds.

seed swaps, sorting seeds

But then, I’m not sure how I ended up with so many books. Or chairs for that matter. And the shoe/closet ratio has recently shifted from silly to absurd.

But of all these little and not so little collections, one, at least, is solvable. Thanks to a National Day that comes every January, I might just be able to offload some of these seeds and begin the process of organizing myself for the seed-starting season ahead.

National Seed Swap Day is the brainchild of Washington Gardener Magazine Editor, Kathy Jentz, who petitioned for its inclusion in the national calendar back in 2006; and who, every year, hosts two large seed swaps in celebration – one at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD and one at Green Springs Garden in Alexandria, VA, complete with speakers, door prizes, and goody bags for participants.

kathy jentz, washington gardener magazine, brookside gardens, seed swap day
Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine

Though you might groan at the thought of another national day (there are currently 1200), giving seed starting a national stage tends to mobilize garden groups, community gardens and other organizations to take advantage of the publicity and hold their own seed swaps. 

As long as the swap is within two weeks of the official day (last Saturday of January), and held in person, organizations can register for free on www.seedswapday.com, which allows other gardeners to find them in a centralized database organized by date.

Today there are swaps registered in 38 states (and a couple in Canada and Mexico), but Jentz hopes to have participants in all 50 states within the next few years, and eventually she wishes to convert the website into a charitable organization. 

Jentz balances the administration of these swaps and the website with her own busy career as a magazine editor and a garden speaker.  That’s no mean feat, but she has a worthy purpose.

“I wanted to see more coordinated efforts for gardeners.” she says. “This gives people access to hundreds of varieties at a tiny cost – and access to other gardeners, methods and ideas that goes beyond online swaps.”

Preparing yourself for a seed swap

Give yourself a day or so before a swap to go through your seeds and see what you could part with.  Tough job.  But I find the best way to do it is to start by imagining myself on a hot day in mid-August, watering can in hand, gnats in eyes, salty words on tongue.

sorting tomato seeds, seed swaps

At that point in the season, I am harvesting more than I can eat and watering more than I can harvest.  I’ve already started seeds for the fall garden and am wondering why I thought 18 tomato varieties was a good idea.

After a few minutes’ meditation on this all-too-realistic scenario, I am not only ready to clean up my seed coffers, I’m practically ready to throw them at someone.

Preparing your seeds for a seed swap

A few things to think about as an aid to generosity:

  • Many seeds, such as carrot, parsnip, spinach, lettuce and onions germinate best from fresh seed (less than one year old).  You might want to share last years’ stock if you’re not going to use it all.   
  • Some vegetable seed packets give you 20 when you only need 4. That means that four other gardeners can experience the joy of [insert fabulous seed] and you can be responsible for their evangelization. Coin envelopes or plastic snack baggies with Avery labels make dividing an easy chore.
  • There are seeds in your collection that you are simply not going to use.  You know it, I know it.  Send them back out into the universe to bless and delight someone who will.
  • If your seeds are terribly old (I’ve got some from 2006) it’s really not fair to share them, but many swaps do take seeds well-past their expiration date and leave it up to swappers to do the gambling.
  • If you’ve kept your seed in an area that constantly fluctuates in temperature or humidity, it might be best to keep them to yourself and make sure you test germination rates before you start your own sowing. Fortunately, in an attempt to encourage everyone, most seed swaps allow you to come without seeds.
seed sorting tray, seed swaps

Once you’ve made your choices (and boy does it feel good), label your packets with the variety, date collected (if applicable), expiration date (if applicable), and any information you might like to share about cultivation.  The more the better, but don’t make the task too arduous – the purpose is share the seeds, not lecture on them.

Now for the really tough part.

Picking seeds at a seed swap

Take a list with you.

You probably made a mental one as you went through your packets and discovered what you have and what you want.  Transfer that list to paper or phone to hold yourself accountable during the swapping frenzy. If you can manage to take only the same amount of packets as you brought, you are wiser and better than I.

Look carefully at the seed expiration date.  If you love it and it’s a little old, you can choose to conduct a germination test with ten seeds and a wet paper towel when you get home, or choose to wing it. 

seed expiration dates, seed swaps

Understanding the difference between hybrids, open-pollinated, and heirloom varieties. 

Open-pollinated (OP) varieties set seed that will come true to the parent when sown.  Some OP varieties need to be kept away from others of the same species for this to happen without natural hybridization (squash). Others will self-pollinate quickly and come true without too much isolation (tomatoes).  We don’t always know how our fellow gardeners are supervising the reproductive life of their vegetables and flowers – so be aware when you pick up hand-collected OP seeds that there is a chance of variation.

Hybrid seeds occur when two varieties cross-pollinate either by man’s intervention (F1 hybrids) or by nature’s hand.  Although this pairing results in a genetically different cultivar, these are not considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – as genes haven’t been sliced and diced in a lab on a molecular level.  If you’re picking up hybrids, ensure they are original seed in original (or divided) packets.  Hybrids are usually more expensive seeds as two completely different seed parents must be grown, mated and maintained to produce seeds true to type.

Heirloom seeds are tricky – or rather the definition is, as it varies from seed savers exchange.  Some classify them as varieties older than 50 years, others say 100. My favorite definition is perhaps from the seedsaversexchange, as it doesn’t draw an arbitrary line in time and instead, requires documented proof that the seeds have been handed down within communities and generations.  They must be open-pollinated, but that doesn’t mean that last century’s hybrid has not stabilized over time to become today’s open-pollinated heirloom (i.e. ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato).

And as for Non-GMO packets of seeds? Ever stood in front of a display of apples labelled “Gluten Free?” Yeah. It’s like that. GMOs (by the current definition) are not offered for sale in packets to Joe and Jane Gardener, and not something you need to worry about at a swap. (Unless one of your fellow swappers is a corn farmer with a grudge against Monsanto.)

Hey, it could happen.

chard in garden bed, seeds, seed swap

Save, Swap, Sow, Savor.

At their heart, seed swaps are about some of the best things about being human – generosity, fellowship and exchange of ideas.  For those who fancy a little time in town, I’ll be speaking at the Green Springs Garden Swap this Saturday in Alexandria. Come join us, or check out www.seedswapday.com to find local organizations that are still hosting swaps in your area this month.