I’ve been something of an amateur horticulture enthusiast for as long as I can remember: I’ve always been fascinated by plants and the little ecological communities they facilitate. Many members of my family are involved in agriculture, and I’ve worked in greenhouses and garden centers over the years.
Over the last three years, I have been in the immigration system pursuing family reunification with my partner here in Denmark and barred from entering the conventional labor market. As such, I’ve been pursuing my love of gardening with no disposable income. Funnily, this less-than-ideal situation is how I became involved in seed saving and swapping: Something I like to think of as an “alternative currency.”
I have growing space to work with here, but the plant materials—even seed packets—are all available at Scandinavian prices, with Scandinavian taxes. When I started blogging about my small-garden experiments, I started connecting with an online community of like-minded people around the world interested in heirloom and odd food plants. We started sending one another seeds in the mail, either spontaneously or by request.
I amassed a collection of plant germplasm that allowed me to grow my own trees and shrubs, as well as my perennial and annual plants—all without paying for them! I’ve built most of my garden by exchanging seeds I’ve harvested and plants I’ve grown. Growing everything from seed and learning more complex germination processes like stratification (giving seeds a period of warm or cold dormancy before germination) and scarification (breaking down the waterproof seed coat) is challenging at first, but the overall cost of growing from seed is minute when compared to the cost of buying plug plants.
I’ve even grown apple, peach, plum, quince, pawpaw and pear trees from seeds that were in the fruit I was eating, and then grafted these free rootstocks with swapped scion wood of proven cultivars. The exchange of seeds has grown into the exchange of germplasm: tubers, bulbs and cuttings.
Not only is this kind of gardening cheap or free (except for all the stamps), saving seed from your own garden over many successive years gives your plants a leg up in your local biome: You can harvest seeds from the best individuals year after year and create cultivars that are uniquely suited to the conditions of your backyard. It’s also existentially satisfying to nurture a plant from the very beginning and see how the whole process of life unfolds.
There are some things to be wary of when swapping seeds. When I exchange internationally, I always read about biosecurity regulations, disease quarantines and invasive species. I exchange ethically to the best of my knowledge by doing things like checking and filtering seeds to avoid sending hitchhikers and not sending things like plums from my region (we have plum pox) to other parts of the world. There is always a risk of sending something accidentally disruptive, but we carry things like seeds and fungal spores with us across continents when they get stuck in our shoes, clothes and hair and then travel: We, along with many other animals, are often unintentional seed distribution vectors—seed swapping just means putting a little more thought and caution into it!
So this year, let the broccoli bolt, and give the resulting seeds to a friend. Seed saving and swapping is a great way to build community, and save yourself the splurge at the beginning of each season.
About the Author: Lynsey Grosfield is the founder of BiodiverSeed, a global seed swap network devoted to the exchange of self-harvested, organic and heirloom seeds with the goal of preserving maximum genetic diversity. Follow BiodiverSeed on Twitter.