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Home for the Harvest

How Seed Swaps Inspire Heirloom Gardening

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to leave the big city and move to my hometown. We didn’t know what to do once we got there, but we were determined to settle down where we could breathe fresh air, hear birds singing, and see the stars at night. One snowy weekend right before we moved, I noticed a handmade sign advertising a seed swap. It seemed like the perfect excuse to get our new garden started.

I couldn’t wait to have my first real garden. In the city, the closest thing I had to a garden was a tray of wheatgrass in the kitchen. Fortunately, the seed swap turned out to be the perfect place for an introduction to organic gardening! It was exactly what I needed before our move.


How Seed Swaps Inspire

There are Fruits and Vegetables I Don’t Know About?

As I walked across downtown to the seed swap, I made a mental list of the things I’d like to grow in my new kitchen garden. The classics like tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce all made the list. These were veggies I already loved which were reportedly much tastier if you grew them yourself.

At the swap, I went up to the tomato section at the first big booth. I was completely stunned at the number of choices! There were more kinds of tomatoes than I could have possibly imagined.

I had been aware only of “hot-house” and Roma tomatoes because these were the two types sold in the grocery store. At the seed swap, however, there were packets of seeds for heirloom tomatoes unlike anything I’d ever seen. There were even tomato-like things for sale that I’d never heard of like purple tomatillos and ground cherries. Most of these interesting seeds were labelled as being heirloom cultivars.

Homegrown Tomatillos 
I had never heard of tomatillos before going to my first seed swap. Now we eat them almost weekly!

I’ll admit that I was a little shocked to see that there were fruits and vegetables that I was simply unaware of. It was humbling that there were so many types of produce that I didn’t know about! I would later learn that only the most uniform, disease-resistant, transportable, and shelf-stable produce types and cultivars end up in the grocery store.

After quite a few additions to my “must-have” seed list, I decided I’d hit my limit and went on to the next room at the swap. The next area of the seed swap was full of small plants available for purchase. Vendors were again selling things I’d never heard of like mulberries, paw paws, purple sweet potatoes, and sunchokes. I was hooked! I wanted to try all these different new foods.

Heirloom Garden Planning
Now I make a written shopping list of the plants I’m looking for before I go to the swap!

Heirloom Seeds and Seed Saving

After discovering these heritage plants for the first time, I had to wonder where the seeds at the swap had come from. Chatting with the vendors, most had inherited their seeds from family members, traded them with other growers, or picked them up while travelling. These cultivars had been saved by generations of gardeners and small farmers rather than by large seed companies.

Each vendor had created their own seed library from these heirloom seeds, which was replenished and refined year after year. In most cases, the plants had been grown in our area for so long that they’d become specially adapted to the region. The vendors were also more than happy to explain terms like open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid to me.

Seed Swap Packets 
Heirloom seeds are passed down from generation to generation

Although most of the seeds at the seed swap were available for purchase from small independent vendors, there was also a community swap area. I absolutely loved that tradition! Local gardeners thoughtfully collected seeds from their favorite plants and brought them to the swap to share with other gardeners for free.&

Sharing seeds is a vital part of keeping heirloom cultivars alive and thriving. Now that I have my own garden, I love bringing the seeds I’ve saved to our local seed swap to pass on to other gardeners. Many organizations that host community seed swaps also house seed libraries throughout the year. In our area, gardeners can bring bulk seeds they’ve saved to the seed library in the fall. Volunteers clean and package the seeds over the winter, just in time for distribution at the swap. This tradition is a wonderful way to connect gardeners together.

The Culinary Appeal of Heirloom Cultivars

As is customary, I ended up with way more seeds than I meant to at that first seed swap. My excuse was that my friends and family are always looking for the next unique ingredient to cook with. I decided that my first garden would not be about offsetting my grocery bill. Instead, our garden would be about discovering and learning to grow interesting heirloom varieties that aren’t found in the supermarket.

Seed Swap Event
Seed Swaps are a wonderful introduction to heirloom gardening

How Seed Swaps Create New Heirloom Gardeners

My first seed swap introduced me to organic gardening methods and heirloom cultivars. I was completely inspired to delve into edible gardening in a way that has been far more rewarding than simply growing a few staple grocery store crops. The heirloom cultivars I’ve grown have enriched my favorite recipes and even introduced me to some new dishes. I’ve also been so grateful to connect with other local gardeners as we pass down seeds and stories.

Heirloom seeds that have been passed down between generations of gardeners are an incredibly important part of local culture. The swap events themselves are also an amazing way to get to know other local gardeners while learning about the heirlooms that thrive in your area.

Inspiring Heirloom Gardening

This year, consider saving some extra seeds from your garden to donate to a local seed library or seed swap organization. If you’ve got a great seed swap in your area, why not bring a few new gardeners along with you next year and help them navigate the tables of seeds? You can read more about how to make the most of your local seed swap by going to my personal blog, Home for the Harvest.

If there isn’t a seed swap in your area, consider hosting one yourself! You’ll be helping keep varieties available for future generations while making everyone’s garden a little more interesting. Check out some more ways to get heirloom seeds to every gardener in the article Share and Share Alike: How to Get Heirloom Seeds to Every Gardener.

Photo credit: All photos by Mary Jane Duford (Home for the Harvest)