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How to Organize a Seed Swap

Organizing a seed swap is a great way to engage the gardening community where you live and give gardeners, new and old alike, a chance to mingle and get to know each other, exchange garden information, seed history and experiences. Gardeners who participate in seed swaps have the chance to try small amounts of new to them seeds, unload personal seed stashes or seeds from personal seed banks, garden groups and seed savers can use the opportunity of a seed swap to distribute seeds from their seed library. Below are some tips on how to organize a seed swap that I have picked up attending and organizing in-person seed swaps.

How to organize a seed swap

Choose a Venue for your Seed Swap
The number of people you invite or anticipate attending your seed swap will determine the size of the venue you hold your seed swap in. Seed swaps can be held in homes, schools, libraries, lodges, churches or even at local business like a garden center who understands the value of a gathering of like-minded gardeners.

For larger seed swaps set up three tables, one for vegetables and herbs, one for annuals and one for perennials. Label each table with the type of seeds it should hold. Three tables helps prevent people crowding around one table. At more intimate seed swaps one large table with enough room to hold the seed packs works well. Provide ample seating, especially for older gardeners and gardeners with accessibility issues.

Promoting Your Seed Swap.
Seed Swap in Chicago
Post handmade posters in places your neighbors and gardeners will come across them. Coffee shops, community centers, garden centers and nurseries are good places to advertise. Take advantage of online tools like forums, but don’t limit yourself to just gardening forums. Blogs, neighborhood news sites, Twitter and Facebook can help you reach a wide gardening audience.

Checking in Seed Inventories.
It’s a good idea to have a gardener that has plenty of experience sowing, saving and identifying seed there to check in seeds that are being brought to the swap. Sometimes seed swaps draw a number of gardeners who don’t have a lot of experience who maybe bring more chaff than seeds, and seeds they have collected but can’t identify or mislabeled seeds. Once the seeds have been checked they can be placed on the appropriate table. If you’re organizing a really large seed swap you can distribute tickets to the gardeners that list how many seeds packs they brought and how many they can take. Personally, I prefer the honor system and trust that people will not take more than they brought. If at all possible make sure the common and botanical names are included on the seed packs.

Newbie Seed Swappers.
How to organize a seed swap
Seed swaps can draw two kinds of gardeners, the experienced seed starters and swappers and new gardeners who are there to learn or are curious. If a gardener shows up and doesn’t have seeds to trade don’t turn them away. Try to solicit seed donations for these gardeners from seed companies, local seed libraries, garden clubs and other gardeners so they don’t leave the swap empty-handed. There are always extra seeds at the end of a swap and instead of it going to waste, send the seeds home with the gardeners who showed up without seeds. If time allows have a short presentation on seed starting and some examples of starting seeds using frugal gardening tips like newspaper pots, seed starting in plastic baggies and plastic soda bottle greenhouses and paper tubes.

Donated Seeds
I've often asked seed companies for donations for seed swaps. Sometimes they send packaged seed or they'll send bulk seed. Both types of seed are greatly appreciated, but I've noticed that people react differently to packed seeds. There's something about the glossy seed pack that brings out the greed in people. From trying to sneak more than their fair share (in instances where you're doing 1-1 trades), to monopolizing multiple seed packs while they make their selection. A nicely designed seed pack with a good photograph makes people forget their manners at seed swaps.

In situations where you have the exact same seeds, but one seed pack has a photograph, and the other has an illustration; the photographed package is more likely to be taken.

To counter the greedy impulse in people I suggest unpacking all the seeds and repackaging them into plain paper coin envelopes. This will force the seed swappers to slow down, read and make decisions and possibly have conversations. You're also ensuring that more people get to sample the donated seeds. People who have little to no experience sowing seeds shouldn't take an entire seed pack. Half a seed pack is enough for the average gardener's need. Make sure to write the name of the plant and what seed company donated it on the plain envelope so your sponsor gets credit.

Being the Bad Guy
Seed swaps are suppose to be fun. They're great ways to meet other gardeners, try new seeds, and build a sense of community. Sounds great, right? Well, when you have seed swaps in public locations you may encounter people who are interested in seeds, but may not have brought seeds of their own to share. Perhaps they just heard about the event moments before or they just stumbled across it while going about their daily lives. If you have enough seeds to share then share what you can with these people. When there isn't enough seeds to share don't be afraid to say no, or explain to them that the seeds are for those who brought seeds. If they waltz into the seed swap and descend on the seeds and start taking handfuls of seeds, don't be afraid to be the bad guy and ask them to put seeds back.

Seed Swapping. 
I’m of the belief that people who brought seeds to swap should be given a chance to choose seeds first. If you’re not handing out tickets ask the gardeners who didn’t bring seeds to wait a few minutes while those who did look over the selection and make their choices. Encourage the remainder seeds to be taken, donate them to community gardens and give them out to friends.
Chicago Gardeners Swap Seeds

Have extra envelopes, pens and markers to package seeds that were brought and not individually packaged, and to split up large seed quantities.  Commercial, opened and unopened, seeds at seed swaps are fine with me, though you may want to establish some kind of rule to deal with them depending on the types of gardeners who are attending your swap. I like commercial seed packs at seed swaps because they give me the opportunity to try a seed I may not have tried before, for free! The relatively recent popularity of heirloom seeds have turned hybrid seeds and plants in the bad guys of the gardening world. At the last seed swap I helped facilitate there was an issue after someone objected to “Big Boy” tomato seeds being included at the swap. If the seeds are from a commercial source I think they’re perfectly fine for inclusion in a seed swap. Saved seeds from hybrids, on the other hand, should not be included as they will not come true from seed. What this means is that the seeds will not produce plants like the one they were saved from.

How to host a seed swap

Seed swaps should be a fun learning experience that you engage in with friends and potential friends. They can be large affairs full of strangers or intimate experiences with a group of friends sitting around a table. The biggest benefit in hosting a seed swap or attending one isn’t in how many seeds you walk away with, it’s about sharing an experience, seed information and forging bonds with those in your community.

Have fun.


  1. MBT - hate I missed this one! You know what I don't like about seed swaps? The repackaging of the seeds. It's a lot of work!

    I would never have thought about the risk of somebody bringing saved seeds from hybrid plants but yeah, that's not cool. That said, I think there are quite a few gardeners out there that don't really understand why this doesn't work.

  2. @Gina, LOL. I guessed as much about you since last year you didn't participate in our seed swap at the Chicago Flower Show on account of repacking seeds. That's actually my favorite part of seed swaps. Getting to touch and repackage the seeds. It must be what it feels like to be rich and run your hands over stacks of money, expensive art and endangered animals in your private zoo.

    What I don't like about seed swaps is organizing them! Just kidding, I love it. But I miss out on all the cool seeds because I feel like I shouldn't be taking seeds or I feel like I have to be a good host. Although, this time a few people who came brought seeds especially for me. It was awesome.

    You know what would be cool? Having like a course that you have to take from beginning to end to educate people about seed starting and seed saving. I bet we could put a dent in the number of people who don't know about seed saving and the difference between heirlooms and hybrids. Then they could go off and teach other people about it.

  3. Gina, You don't have to repack seeds. Most seed swap hosts bring lots of small envelopes. Then people can just pour out a little from a larger seed pack and label it themselves. But I come with the larger seed packs; I don't divide them into multiple smaller envelopes ahead of time. Um, unless you mean repackaging AT the swap, which I really enjoy. However, some people DO come with smaller quantities, or let you take the whole large envelope.

    MBT, I felt the exact same way when I hosted a plant exchange all those years--like I couldn't partake in the action because I was facilitating and answering questions. Which I like to do, but I like plants, too. I finally assigned some friends to trade on my behalf and was lucky they had a feel for what I wanted. :) Also, the German part of me wants to over-orchestrate every detail of a swap, but I've been happily surprised how well the whole just throwing seeds down on the table works. Esp. if people bring what is truly extras, not their most prized seeds--then no one really wants to leave with them and it's all good. (One swap was run by a community garden group so many of us donated our leftover seeds to the organization, and the leader of another swap donated leftovers to another community garden for us. (If people wanted to leave them.)

    I have some good stuff ready to swap!!

  4. MBT, what are your thoughts about bringing seeds packaged for a previous year? I have a surplus and would be happy to share them (without expecting to pick up the same qty. as I brought,) but wasn't sure if they'd be considered of any value since they likely won't have the higher germination of fresher seeds.

  5. @Monica,

    I never thought of having a proxy seed swapper. That's kind of brilliant and devious. Although, since I'm picky about what I'll take maybe that wouldn't work so well for me. But may be something worth exploring.

    I didn't want to get into the "special" seeds area in the post, so I'm glad you brought it up in the comments. I sometimes take something that's rare or expensive and will keep it to myself until I see someone who has the same and then approach them for a trade. The next one I host I'll come up with a way for people who have special seeds to trade to recognize each other. We had a number of awesome seeds at the seed swap at the Chicago Cultural Center because a few of the attendees were "pros."

    @Garden Girl,
    I'm fine with older seed too because they don't really lose that much viability. Older seed should just be sown more heavily to make up for the freshness loss. If they're in the original pack and it is clearly labeled as being grown for a specific year, it should be fine. Everyone should read their seed packets and learn as much as possible about what they're growing.

  6. I wish I could have made it! Then again I doubt there would have been too much interest in my odd Mediterranean and semi-tropical climate plants...

  7. Tom, You'd be mistaken. I would've snapped those up. One of the employees at one of the conservatories brought some cool tropical stuff.

  8. Nice! Spring is a million miles away still but today was the first of several Seedy Sunday events. Fun! But disorganized indeed. We could have used rules, tickets, etc. It was kind of a free-for-all and all the herb seeds were gone by the time I had a chance to get to that the table. (and the donation jars were mostly empty...)

  9. This is a great post filled with inspiring ways to share seeds. What is there NOT to love! I like the giant sunflower you have treasured at the end of the blog post.

    I'm going to share this link with a few connections who always comment that they wish they had a seed swap near them. YOU prove that it is well worth the lite organization to host a seed swap of your own.

  10. Pippi217:38 AM

    Mr.Brown Thumb..what great timing you have. I'm planning on attending my first seed swap on 2/26 and am really looking forward to it since I don't know what to expect, it should be interesting. My husband and I attended our first plant swap last May. I didn't know what to expect and didn't want to go empty handed, so I went to Home Depot and purchased a flat of plants. Well, let me tell you that day was not only beautiful weather but the hostess had a yard that was smashing. Everybody bought food to share and we had a wonderful time and received quite an education. It was then that I realize how serious gardeners can be about their plants and how generous. I only came home with 5 new plants. I only asked for a plant that I had on my wish list and I really don't need more seeds but there are certain ones on my wish list that I don't have and am hoping that I can trade for those at the seed swap coming up. Most of all, it is fun to put faces to the usernames you have converse with on the gardening websites. I see entire pkg. at your seed swap, and then some sample pkts. I wonder if this is how it will be at the one that I'm planning to attend. I enjoy so much all your tuitorials and have learned so much from your blogspot. I have referred so many gardening friends and newbies to your blogspot too. I just wished you lived in our area!

  11. I have to give it a try. But I wonder if I can get enough people to make it worth while. I don't know that many gardeners here

  12. @Jennifer, Attending an offical Seedy Sunday is on my bucketlist! Man, I want to know what that kind of crazyness is like!

    @Bren, That's very nice of you Bren. I hope people get more proactive and host their own. It's so much fun to attend and to participate.

    @Pippi21, Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope your seed swap experience is just as fullfilling as your plant swap was. You could encounter some seed packs that are closed and some that are open. Don't shy away from them because they give you a good opportunity to try new stuff out.

    @Fer,You have to at least give it a try. Do they have message boards where a lot of gardeners post? Maybe see if there's a Facebook group in for gardeners in your area. I'd love to see what a seed swap in Japan would look like.

  13. I totally want to plan a seed swap in the future. This is great!!

  14. Gearing up for my first seed swap of the season on Sunday. I'm not all that into seeds, but even I get a little glassy eyed at these things.

  15. This is fantastic!! I was thinking about doing something like this with some friends, I didn't realize it was something people do on a larger scale. I am definitely going to plan on organizing a larger one next year.

    I have a couple of questions…

    Do you check the age of the seeds too? If so, what's the cut off - 3 years, 5…? Or do you determine it by the type of seed?

    You said you encourage people to donate the seeds at the end, or give them away. Are there people that expect to take their extras home? If so, how do you keep them organized so people can get their extras back?


    1. I generally don't check the age, because a lot of the seeds brought to swaps are only in the 2-3 year age, which is fine. If it's older seed I generally encourage people to provide more of it to account for the lower germination rates.

      There's no expectation to take home excess seeds, but I'll usually send the stragglers home with any extras. You have to reward people who stay 'til the end. :0)

    2. Great, thanks for the tips!

  16. Thank you!!! We are running our first seed swap on Sunday. This is a great help!




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