Saving seeds and sharing them is one of the greatest joys known to many gardeners.
We love to share seeds from our plants so that others may experience the magic transformation from seed to seedling known as germination.
Once you start growing plants from seed, I guarantee you will never lose that childlike anticipation, wonderment, and excitement of watching that seed sprout to life. I still exclaim ‘they’re alive!’ and jump for joy every single time my seedlings emerge.
I hope the information and resources I’m sharing with you here will encourage you to attend a local seed swap and to begin saving some of your own seeds to share with others.
Most seed swaps do not require you to bring seed, especially if you are a beginning gardener or new to saving seed. So view them as an opportunity to learn. And know that those of us that do bring seeds usually bring a lot to share because it is our way of introducing you to the joys of growing plants.
So even if you have never saved your own seed, I highly encourage you just to attend a seed swap to learn and gather information and maybe pick up a few seeds just to try.
Why do we need to save and share seeds?
Starting plants from seed can be more economical. I can start more plants from seed than I can afford to buy as plants. And I can keep saving them, like an investment, year or after year.
One of the main reasons to save seeds for many gardeners is just the act of being able to share them. Sharing seeds is an easy way to spread the love of gardening or a particular favorite flower, vegetable or plant with someone.
Saving seeds is also an important activity to preserve and protect genetic diversity of seeds and varieties available for the future. The reason we have some awesome heirloom varieties today is because someone selectively saved the genetics, or traits of a plant, they thought should be carried forward. Think about all those wonderful heirloom tomato varieties. Saving seeds today ensures the enjoyment of those plants for generations to come.
I also learned during a presentation on seed libraries, that sharing seeds and growing gardens together are one of the first steps in the process of establishing a community. It was once vitally important for this process to happen as simple as it seems. People that needed to survive together learned to share seeds, grow gardens, and learn from each other to strengthen and build their group, society, or civilization.
What is a seed swap and when did Seed Swap Day begin?
Seed swaps occur at different times of the year and vary in how they are organized. Some include daylong agendas, presentations, workshops while others are more simple come and go on your own during a shorter open period of time. Thinking about hosting a seed swap? Learn How to Organize A Seed Swap from the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library.
The first official Seed Swap Day was organized in 2006 by Kathy Jentz of Washington Gardener Magazine. It was such a popular idea that more events were soon organized by others all over the country. The last Saturday in January each year is now known as National Seed Swap Day.
Seed Saving Do’s and Don’ts for a Seed Swap
Check with your local seed swap to see what types of seeds you can bring.
Generally you are encouraged to bring seeds that are saved by open pollination. This means seeds that will grow “true” from plants that are either self-pollinated or pollinated by another representative of the same variety or species. Basically this is how nature makes wildflowers. It’s really that simple. Examples are perennial species like coneflowers (Rudbeckia) or milkweed (Asclepias) or annual species like zinnias (Zinnia) or sunflowers (Helianthus).
Heirloom seed varieties are highly sought after at seed swaps. Heirloom seeds are plant varieties that have existed for fifty or more years. These are genetically stable varieties that have been open-pollinated or varieties created through selective breeding. Many vegetables, and also some flowers, have very long-lived and popular heirloom varieties such as the Mortgage Lifter tomato, Blue Hubbard squash, Moon and Stars watermelon, Mammoth sunflower, Envy zinnia, etc.
In general, most seed swaps will encourage you to bring extra store bought or commercially packaged seeds that you may have that are still viable. This means to check the ‘year packed date’ required on commercially sold seed packages.
In general seeds that are older than four years should not be shared. How long seeds can be saved varies by the type of seed. The older the seeds, the lower the germination rate success of the seed by each year.
Store bought packaged hybrid seeds are usually fine to bring. However, know that you can not bring seeds that have been saved from a hybrid plant that you grew. Those seeds will not be “true” to that plant that you grew. That means the seeds saved from it will not always represent the best characteristics of that plant. And oftentimes these days, hybrid seeds are also protected by plant propagation laws.
Bring only what you can identify. The seeds should be packaged and labeled with the full common name. However, many seed swaps have an ‘intake’ process and won’t allow seeds into the swap if they don’t have a botanical name as well. Some swaps want you to bring your seeds ahead of time so they can research the botanic names while others will have an ‘intake’ table to add the botanical name. This is not necessarily true for vegetables that only go by their common variety names or well known annuals such as marigolds or sunflowers.
Generally, most people save and share seeds of plants that they have grown for years and become familiar with overtime. If you are saving wildflowers and want to learn how to identify them, see this article on Learning to how to use ‘keys’ to identify a plant.
Do not bring invasive plant seeds. Another reason a seed swap wants only well identified plants is because they do not want anything that is potentially invasive. Each state has a list of invasive plants usually through the state’s department of conservation.
- The Virginia Invasive Plant List is available at https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/invsppdflist
- The Federal Noxious Weed List is available at https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxiousDriver
- Help with invasive identification is available from the National Invasive Species Information Center at https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/subject/identification
- The Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States (https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org) is another good resource. Note that not all plants listed are invasive everywhere. They can be placed in this database even if there is only one occurrence of a plant in one county. Look at the map to see if that plant is invasive in your area. The term ‘invasive’ is a regional term. For instance, a plant may be native to one state but considered invasive in another state.
Tips on saving and sharing seed
When to save seeds depends on the plants. For instance, with many vegetables, you want to save seed from the first and best example of that vegetable. This is to preserve the best qualities a plant is known for, such as the taste, size, color, etc.
However, with many annuals, perennials, and wildflowers, you want to save the seeds near the end of that plant’s life cycle or growing season. This helps to ensure the full viability of that seed. One clue to watch for is when you see birds going for those seeds, you better start saving some for yourself soon.
Choose the healthiest and most vigorous plants to save seed from. You can pass some plant pathogens (such as a virus) from the seed. And again, you want to select seeds that best represent that plant. If the flowers are not the best size, color, or form then you do not want to save those seeds.
I generally save seed from favorite annual heirloom flowers or native perennial wildflowers that are familiar to me. At the end of their season, I will go around with scissors and cut off the dried flowers at the end of the stem and save them in a small paper bag that I label. Sometimes I will use a bucket if I have a large flower or amount to collect.
I let them dry out well over the fall and winter and store in a dark, cool area. Before a seed swap I will then extract the seeds from the dried flowers. Sometimes it’s as easy as shaking them well in their paper bags. Some require a little more effort and you may have to research the best way to get the seed from the flowers.
Exactly how to save seeds can be specific to the type of plant. Saving tomato seeds is different from saving flowers seeds for instance. Here are a few seed saving specific resources:
- Saving vegetable seeds from University of Minnesota Extension
- Saving Seeds from your Garden from Iowa State University Extension
- Saving tree seeds by Timothy Baker, University of Missouri Extension
Avoid plants that tend to cross-pollinate easily, especially if they have not been grown with saving the seeds in mind. For instance, corn is pollinated by wind and can cross-pollinate with other corn easily so that you may not get the best representation of that variety of corn. Note that cross-pollination is actually required for some fruit and nut tree species for instance. But not favorable in other plants to preserve the quality or characteristics of a variety.
Learn more about how cross-pollination affects seeds in these resources:
- Saving Seed of Pumpkins, Squash, Cucumbers, Melons and Gourds from South Dakota State University Extension
- Pollination of Vegetable Crops from UGA Cooperative Extension
- Pollination Requirements for Various Fruits and Nuts from Penn State University Extension
Best practices on labeling your seed
First and foremost, the information should be easy to read and understand.
You may want to choose to type up and print stickers or labels as a faster means of labeling a lot of plants. I print my ‘label stickers’ out on paper and tape to the seed packet. Then you will have the information saved and ready to print again and again.
For most of my seeds I prefer to use small to medium size coin envelopes and I create my own labels that I print and tape to the envelopes. You can also use regular envelopes or learn to fold your own envelopes. There are also small plastic jewelry bags that work well.
Some seed swaps want you to individually package them before bringing while others allow you to bring them in bulk and let people make their own envelopes. Again, check with your seed swap to see their preference on this. They may even give you a template for the labels.
- Common name or a botanical name is required. Having both is preferred but some seed swaps will help you determine the botanical name when you bring your seeds.
Other information that is helpful and encouraged:
- Life cycle: is the plants an annual (one life cycle) or perennial (returns each year).
- Light requirements: does it prefer full sun or shade.
- Size: what is the average height and/or width of the plant
- Description: what is the color of the flower or a characteristic of the vegetable.
- Sowing information: if possible, include information about timing such as sow indoors 4 weeks before frost or after direct sow outside after frost.
One last tip on saving and sharing seed is to start small, simple, and early. The easiest way to get started saving seed for a seed swap is to choose just one of your favorite flowers or vegetables.
As you begin your growing season, think about what flowers, plants and vegetables you have enjoyed the most and make a plan to remember to save some of those seeds for yourself and for others.
I hope this information encourages you to explore the possibilities of saving seed from your own garden and attending a local seed swap.