Whether you save your own seeds or just have a bunch of leftover packets from years past, a seed swap is a great way to expand the diversity of both your garden and your community. But don't limit yourself to just seeds! I have been organizing events like these for close to 20 years and folks have brought surplus plants, trees, garden supplies, food preserves and homebrews. A seed swap attracts more than just the local permaculture crowd. People from all walks of life have a passion for gardening and seed saving and this event can bridge gaps and build new friendships that lead to a close-knit and more sustainable community for everyone. Here's how:
Look online and ask around in your area about anyone who has organized seed swaps in the past. It is better to help with a central, large swap than to have a bunch of small ones that aren't connected. If you can't find anyone who is already organizing swaps in your community, then you are ready to move on to step 2.
In order to do this, you will need to decide on some things. First, when and where will you have your seed swap? Your house, the park, a local church or café or a nearby community garden are all great venues for a seed swap and they don't cost money. Next, decide whether you want to have people exchange just seeds, or if you also want to have them bring plants, garden supplies, potluck foods, preserves, homebrews, etc. Put all of this information on your flier. Pick a date at least six weeks in advance to give yourself time to get seed donations and thoroughly publicize the event. Once you've made the flier, you can create an event and a page on Facebook and any other social networks that seem relevant.
Send a short, polite letter, with your flier attached, to seed companies, local farmers, garden stores and anywhere else that you think might have some surplus seeds from last year to donate. Remember that some of these places get a lot of requests, so be patient and polite. It is fine to follow up with a second email or phone call a couple of weeks after your first request, but don't harass them! If you don't get a ton of donations for your first seed swap, don't worry about it. Once you've established an annual pattern, you will always have more seed than you know what to do with.
When your swap is about three weeks away, start doing a ton of publicity. Send a calendar listing to the local papers. Make an event on Craigslist and promote that Facebook page. Make a handbill and pass it out at farmers markets, post fliers at local garden centers and food stores. Go to garden-related events and invite people in person. The more you hit the streets with this, the more successful you will be. A seed swap is a tangible way to connect with your community in face-to-face, real time. Let it happen and you will be amazed at the results.
On the day of the event, give yourself about two hours to set up the space. Make attractive signs for the different families of garden seeds (beans, brassicas, nightshades, lettuces, etc.) It doesn't matter if you know botany, just create a system so that people who bring seeds to share can easily find where to put them, and seed-searchers can figure out where to look. Create a few sitting areas for people to socialize when they're taking a break from seed swapping. Leave a space in the middle where everyone can circle up at the beginning of the event.
Most seed swaps take one of two forms: people either set up their own little area and directly trade seeds, or everyone just puts what they brought out on onto the tables, potluck-style, and then they just go for it. I much prefer the latter format because I feel it contributes to the spirit of community more so than a "this-for-that" format. Assuming you will take my advice, have everyone put their seeds on the tables, but ask them to wait until a critical mass of people have arrived at the event before they start looking. Once you get what feels like a solid amount of people (and seeds), have them circle up. Go around and ask each person to talk for less than a minute about who they are, where they're from, and what they brought. This is an essential part of the event, as it gives everyone a clear picture of the community that has come together for the seed swap. But don't be afraid to play facilitator here, so that the go-around doesn't take more than 20 minutes or so. Introduce yourself at the end, and ask everyone not to take more than half of anything — that way the diversity stays on the tables for as long as possible. And then tell them to go for it!
A seed swap is one of the most photogenic events you will ever attend. Take as many pictures as you can. Get close-ups of hands with seeds in them. Take group photos of people laughing and sharing. Climb up high and get shots from above. If you have video or audio recording tools, interview folks and ask them about their relationships with seeds and their experience of the seed swap. All of this documentation will help you promote future events, and can be a wonderful way to inspire people in other communities. If you have skills to edit a short video and put it online, all the better. This is such a simple, free and easy way to build community, so consider your final task as important as the rest, and help get the word out about the glory of a community seed swap!
Heather Jo Flores is the author of Food Not Lawns; How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, and a co-founder of the original Food Not Lawns organization in Eugene, Oregon in 1999. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College and currently resides in Southern Humboldt. Learn more at www.foodnotlawns.com or www.heatherjoflores.com.