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Organize a Swap Meet for Vegetable Garden Seeds

A seed swap is an effective way to help your neighbors get free seeds for their garden, connect with other gardeners, and increase the food security and genetic diversity of your bioregion.

Swap meets have been going on for a long time among livestock owners. Now you can organize your own swap meet to get seeds for free — that is, trading seeds you have too many of for those that may be hard to come by.

Establish a date and place to have your swap meet several months in advance. Possible sites include schools, churches, bookstores, parks, community centers, and private homes.

Make a list of what you will need: tables, outdoor shelter, transportation, photocopies, volunteers to help set up, and Internet access for promoting the event. Post announcements in the local paper or online, advertising a need for resources. You probably will get many things donated, but you may need to make a nominal investment, which can be recovered by setting out a donation jar at the seed swap, which traditionally has yielded anywhere from $45 to $300.

Look for local experts — extension agents, landscape designers, farmers, authors, or master gardeners — to invite as guest speakers or workshop instructors. Seed swap attendees often are preoccupied with the seeds themselves, but a short workshop or demonstration goes over well and adds dimension to the gathering.

Many people will bring seeds to the swap, but many others will come empty- handed. It's a good idea to acquire seed donations from local growers and seed companies in advance, so you can count on having a surplus.

Ask local and national garden centers, farmers, garden clubs, seed companies, online seed exchanges, and even neighbors, to donate seeds. Many have scores of leftover seed from seasons past, and most are eager to share it.

Once you confirm guest speakers, make and distribute fliers, write a press release and send to local media, and submit the event to regional Internet calendars.

On the day of the swap, set up an hour or two early. Bring tables, chairs, and whatever else you need, and display the seeds so they are easily accessible. It helps to organize them by plant family, so people know where to look, and where to put the seeds they bring. Make small signs for the different types of seeds and provide empty envelopes for people to stash small quantities of seed.

The swap can take one of two shapes. The first is the "marketplace" version, in which participants set up personal displays of their seeds and other goods and negotiate individual, material exchanges with each other.

The second, and much more recommended, version is the "potluck," where people add their seed to what is out on the tables, with a note about the variety and growing procedures. Everyone just browses for a while, until it seems like a critical mass of people have arrived. This is a great time to announce workshops or guest speakers and point out the donation jar. Then everyone just goes at it at once. The only rule is: Don't take more than half of anything.

At the "potluck" seed swap, there usually is surplus left over, which can be donated to a local seed bank or garden project, or stored until the next seed swap.

After the seed swap, spend time evaluating it. What worked? What didn't? Write it all down while the experience is fresh in your mind, then put your notes, receipts, photos, the mailing list, and copies of the flier and press releases in a file.

If you're hooked, you will want to use the file for planning another seed swap next year. If not, then pass the file on to someone else. Whatever happens, everyone who attends is sure to leave with pockets full of potential.

By Heather Coburn Flores

Photography by Tom Milner