Share and Share Alike: How to Get Heirloom Seeds to Every Gardener

Follow these techniques for sharing heirloom vegetable and flower seeds with everyone you meet.

seeds

Heirloom and open-pollinated plant varieties have everything to offer and then some.

Photo courtesy fotolia/monamakela.com

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Plant people are undoubtedly threaded together by a few common characteristics, and sharing is a huge part of their natural make-up. We gardeners are nothing if not zealous in our efforts to share advice, stories, recipes, cuttings, and seeds. Especially the seeds.

Every heirloom gardener I've met — and I've met my share — feels compelled to share the bounty with friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members. We might casually slide a packet of seeds across the table at a coffee house or tuck a bumpy, homemade envelope into someone's pocket at the grocery store.

Heaven help these people if they're even remotely near the vicinity of our gardens, as we're certain to usher them outdoors: encouraged to collect seeds for themselves. No matter what our individual techniques may be, we are determined to share our heirloom bounty. And rightly so. 

Heirloom and open-pollinated plant varieties have everything to offer and then some. My theory is that the only reason every garden doesn't have them is that many gardeners simply haven't been introduced to them yet. Enter you — the heirloom gardener — and your willingness to share seed.

Here are some ideas for sharing heirloom vegetable and flower seeds with everyone you meet:

Throw a Seed Swap

This idea is easily expanded into a spring garden party. Everyone loves an excuse to party; make this one a seed exchange. Invite every gardener you know as well as those who may not garden (yet) to your party — don't leave anyone out. Invitations can go to neighbors, your church group, Bunco group, book club, co-workers, and your kids’ friends’ parents.

Food

When it comes to a seed-swap party, break out the finger food! Appetizers don’t have to be fancy or involved to be delicious. Use your garden bounty of spinach, spring onions, and herbs to make an interesting bruschetta and as a calling card for the seeds you’ll be swapping. Flower shaped-cookies or a cake decorated with a couple of real, edible flowers is simple to prepare, yet fancy in presentation.

Seed Exchange Invitations

You'll end up with the largest number of guests if the invites are sent out mid-winter through early spring, a few weeks in advance. Be sure to let them know to bring heirloom or open-pollinated seeds that they've collected or purchased so that everyone goes home with a variety of garden goodies.

Not everyone will know the definition of “open-pollinated” plants, so you may want to offer a short explanation, such as: “An open-pollinated cultivar (as opposed to a hybrid) can be grown from seed and will reproduce true to type…” Give as much of a definition as you think your circle of friends needs. Let your guests know that they need to bring one seed packet per person invited. The seeds can be flowers, vegetable, herbs, or whatever they like, but the seeds should all be the same.

Exchanging Seeds

Although there are many ways to organize a seed swap, one of the easiest ways is to have one container per guest lined up on a long table. Each person goes down the line and puts one seed packet (that they brought) into each container.

An extra nice touch is if the containers happen to be little baskets, terra cotta pots, or gift bags. This makes nice seed-collection displays for a counter or shelf until they're planted. Then each guest takes home a container of seeds for an instant heirloom garden!

Party Twist

 If you missed the winter/early spring time frame, go for a late spring or early summer event. Ask guests to start their seeds a few weeks at home before the party. Now it becomes a seedling exchange. If you go this route, ask everyone to bring basic directions for growing the plants (and enough copies for each guest).

Over-The-Fence

I mean this both literally as in “hang over the fence and offer some seeds to your neighbor,” and figuratively such as when you run into a friend at the grocery store.

It's always special if you're offering seeds that you've collected from your garden and it can open the door to questions about how to do that with their plants, too. But if you don't have some of your own, then share some that you've purchased (surely you over-bought).

Seedlings that were started indoors during the winter months can be given to friends, family, co-workers, church members, community gardeners, and neighbors as surprise gifts. Both seeds and seedlings make perfect end-of-the-year teacher gifts. If you give the gift of a vegetable that produces both male and female flowers such as squash, cucumbers, or melons, you might want to give them two seedlings in order to raise the chances of the female flowers becoming pollinated naturally.

For people who’ve never considered gardening before, offer a slice of one of your homegrown vegetables. The baiting-with-fresh-flavor-approach works so well it's almost cheating. Don't underestimate how well this one works with kids too.

Teaching

Offer to teach a one-time gardening lesson to the Girl or Boy Scouts, a 4-H club, community center, or home-schooled children. Take it a step further by offering to lead a 4-H gardening project with your local club for the season. The kids not only learn during the course of the project, but they also show their goods at the local county fairs, as well as giving demonstrations. Here's an incredible opportunity to share with the kids, their parents, and other leaders. That's a lot of prospective heirloom gardeners!

Community Gardens

This is a great place to pass seeds around, plus get to know local gardeners in your area. Years ago I belonged to a wonderful community garden in our suburban town and we all freely shared advice, seeds, and plants like crazy. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we learned something every time we hung around the garden pots together. Seeds were passed through many hands.

Seed Exchanges

Individual seed exchanges may have different styles, but these clubs are tailor made to allow seed savers to connect with other seed savers. Gardeners are individually listed in a catalog along with which seeds they're saving. Members can trade seed varieties among themselves.           

Perhaps the most well-known organization today is Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and their 890-acre Decorah, Iowa, farm. As the home to 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties, it's the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. Seed Savers Exchange's 1,100 members have access to more than 20,400 open-pollinated varieties in their Seed Savers Yearbook which combines varieties from the Exchange, as well seeds that are privately offered by other members.

Most organizations such as SSE have a strong sense of replenishing the pool of endangered heirlooms and other open-pollinated varieties. Keep your eyes open for local clubs as well as national organizations. Can't find a local club? Maybe it's time to start your own.

Seed Libraries

From my point of view, seed libraries are the best concepts to come around in a long time. They are the perfect combination of clever, simple, fascinating, and effective. Seed libraries are a rapidly growing trend that seems to be on the path of gaining a solid foothold in the food-garden arena. 

A seed-lending library is basically a seed bank collection that's available to the public by either a private party or a community organization. Each library might have a slightly different focus, such as teaching communities how to grow some of their own food and keeping genetic diversity and heirloom variety. Most seem to be interested in a combination of these important topics, but all of them allow everyone in the community access to vegetable seeds. They can be set up in any public place within a community but seems to be a natural fit inside a traditional, public book library setting.

The system is simple in that it has a chest of drawers or cabinets that house vegetable, herb, and flower seeds as well as a place for people to record which varieties they've “checked out.” The idea is that someone “borrows” seeds for a season; grows them in their garden; uses the crop to provide food for their family; and allows some fruit to mature (to produce viable seed); saves the seeds and returns them to the library for others to borrow.

Along with the seeds is literature with simple explanations on seasonal planting, vegetable and flower varieties, as well as how to collect and store seeds. Some seed libraries, such as the Hudson Valley Seed Library, offer classes on how to save seed. One of the original seed libraries in California, Richmond Grows, is part of the San Francisco Bay Area in Richmond. They say this about seed libraries on their site:

“Just as one seed can produce many seeds, one idea can change many lives. Free public libraries were revolutionary in their time because they provided access to books and knowledge that had not previously been available to a large segment of the population. A free seed-lending library can also provide people with a chance to transform their lives and communities by providing access to fresh, healthy food that may not otherwise be available.”

For more information on locating a seed library in your town or starting one of your own, go to: www.RichmondGrowsSeeds.org/Sister-Libraries.html.

Party Favors

You read that right…Hand out seed packets as party favors for weddings, birthdays, baby announcements, and grand openings. Forget-me-not seeds are nice with engagement or “save the date” announcements, as well as grand openings. Peas could symbolize “two peas in a pod” for a wedding. Sending a seed packet out with baby announcements will let friends know that your family is “growing.”

Feeling crafty? Make your own plantable cards or gift tags with pulverized paper blended with seeds then shaped with a cookie cutter. When they plant their card, they'll have their first heirlooms.

If most of your day is spent in front of the computer (ahem), you can always check out what's happening online. There are hangouts or forums for just about everything — seed swaps included. Both seasoned gardeners and brand-new gardeners are hanging around these forums looking for solid information, advice, and a handful of seeds. Be an heirloom ambassador.


Easy Hand Me Downs

The term "easy"can be tricky when we're referencing gardening topics. For instance, pumpkins are easy to grow and they're also easy in terms of seed collection. Watermelon and other squashes are the same. However, as far as seed saving for seeds that breed true, all of the above are among the harder seeds to save. They just require some technique and know-how.

Beginning seed savers may want to gain more experience with a more seasoned seed saver to collect from plants such as pumpkins (and other squashes), watermelon, sunflowers, corn, kale, broccoli, and amaranth. The only reason these types of plants are labeled as difficult is because they cross-pollinate with other varieties very easily, so growing them for seed requires a little more technique and know-how to be sure that they were pollinated with the same variety so the seeds breed true to that variety.

If you're relatively new at seed saving and would like to share seeds you’ve collected from plants that you've grown, the best ones to start with are those that produce what's referred to as a “perfect flower.” This just means they tend to pollinate themselves before they ever get crossed with another plant variety. 

Notice I said “tend to pollinate themselves.” This isn't always the case; the easy plants listed below can cross-pollinate; however, they do so much less frequently than others. Therefore, we label them as pretty reliable.

Easy Plants for True Seed: Tomato, beans, peas, basil, marigold, fennel, lettuce, coriander, and garlic chives.


Chris McLaughlin is a garden writer and modern homesteader living in the Northern California Gold Country. Her current project, The Mother Lode Seed Library, opens in September.