In the northeast, January is when gardeners get to relax and reflect on the past season. The cold weather—frigid may be the more accurate word this winter—and short days offer up the perfect justification to stay indoors studying seed catalogs for hours. This is absolutely the best time to dream up wild garden plans and order way more seeds than you have room to grow. But before I start ordering seeds for the year, I always check what seeds I have left over from last year—and what seeds I saved out of my garden last fall. This helps me plan what I need to order, and it also helps me figure what seeds I have for sharing with friends.
The last Saturday in January is National Seed Swap Day—this year it falls on January 27. All throughout the country, seed swaps happen on or within a few weeks of this day. If you haven’t heard of a seed swap happening in your area, check with your local botanic garden, garden club, seed library, or community garden. Or better yet, host one yourself!
While a large public seed swap takes a committee of active gardeners and lots of advance planning, a small seed swap is easy to organize and a great excuse to spend a winter afternoon with friends and fellow gardeners. Just pick a date, send an invitation, and remind everyone on the list to bring all their left-over seeds from last year. Most garden seeds, except for a few notoriously short-lived species, can remain viable for at least a few years, so there’s no reason not to include these in the swap. Plus, this is great way to learn about varieties that other gardeners in your area have tried, while getting tips on local sowing dates and spacing.
With a small gathering of friends, a seed swap does not have to be very structured. But if you’re expecting more than a few people, consider the following tips:
Make sure all seeds being offered are clearly labeled, preferably with crop name, variety name, and the year seeds were bought or saved. If seeds are more than a few years old, you’ll want to let people know so they can plan to sow extra seeds, or do a quick at-home germ test first.
Encourage attendees to take time to write down all the information included about a variety. It’s extremely easy to get excited, put seeds in an envelope, and move on to another tempting jar of seeds—only to realize later that you have unlabeled seeds and no idea what they are.
Ask people to be mindful to take only as many seeds as they will use. For certain crops, such as tomatoes or winter squash, this might be just 5-10 seeds. This will help ensure a successful swap, even if you're only starting with small quantities of left-over seed.
Make sure to have "seed swap supplies" on hand, including: pens, empty seed envelopes (coin envelopes work great and are easy to find in bulk), and small spoons or other utensils for scooping seeds. If there are kids that want to help out, have them make some of these origami seed packets.
Take care to avoid sharing seeds that are invasive or considered noxious weeds in your area. Many popular ornamental plants run amuck in a new landscape and quickly go from being useful to destructive. (In our area, there aren’t too many species that gardeners would likely have as seeds, but it’s still worth noting.)