Why you should plant your neighbor's seeds

Members of the King County Seed Lending Library community offer their neighbors edible plant seeds for free at the Great Seattle Seed Swap.

a person wearing a mask and a colorful sweater touches packets of seeds on a folding table in a bright room

A Great Seattle Seed Swap attendee flips through packets of tomato seeds, all available for free, on April 16, 2022. King County Seed Lending Library coordinator Bill Thorness recommends people take only what they can use. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut)

Every time you slice open a bell pepper or spit out a watermelon seed, you have a choice to make: toss the innards or reuse them. Most Americans are habituated to the first option because they’re unaware of the second.

But saving seeds is second nature for a subset of home gardeners in King County, especially from plants they’ve grown themselves. Local seeds can be more diverse and adapted to climates than those that people buy in stores. And getting them for free also saves money.

Some gardeners who supplement their own diets by growing saved seeds are also helping others by contributing to a grassroots seed lending library, a trove of plant-bearing treasures that people can sample from and contribute to for free. 

Gardeners don’t borrow seeds from a seed library so much as take and then replace them, but these libraries are very much community organizations, like the ones that loan books. Housed in people’s homes, community organizations or even “traditional” libraries, community members browse organized collections of packets and glass jars, and fastidious (often unpaid) caretakers monitor what’s in stock year-round. 

But the ultimate expression of a seed library is a seed swap, something the King County Seed Lending Library was finally able to hold on Saturday, April 16, for the first time since 2019. While gardening boomed during the pandemic, in-person exchanges had to be put on hold for the past two years.

That interest in edible gardening, combined with a seed shortage during the pandemic, prompted more people to seek out seed libraries and seed-saving programs, said Bevin Cohen, founder of the Michigan Seed Library Network and a leader within the national Community Seed Network

“Being isolated has really brought to the forefront of our consciousness that we really depend upon each other,” Cohen said. “It has been incredible. The interest in seed swaps and seed libraries is amazing.”

Jars of various squash seeds line one of six folding tables at the Great Seattle Seed Swap, held by the King County Seed Lending Library at the Phinney Center on April 16, 2022. King County gardeners save edible plant seeds like these to share with others drawn by, among many things, the idea of growing what their neighbors plant. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut.)

Seed library coordinator Bill Thorness had been worried that no one would come to the Phinney Community Center seed swap in mid-April because people were still concerned about COVID-19 and that the weather forecast called for rain. 

But about four dozen gardeners turned out for the Great Seattle Seed Swap, eager to explore the hundreds of packets and jars decorating six folding tables and to put faces to the gardeners’ names on their labels. 

Seed saving and sharing is as old as the concept of agriculture itself. “There's really only been a short window where people have been removed from their food system … so to see people coming back around just like everything in nature is so cyclical,” Cohen said. 

Why offer seed swaps? 

People like Thorness come to seed libraries and swapping through a love of heirloom edibles. Thorness, a longtime cycling and gardening author, finds excitement in being able to trace the lineages of the plants in his garden back hundreds of years to settlers, to Native nations and to immigrant communities. “Seeds get carried and passed on,” he said. “I love going out to my garden, looking down at the bed and thinking … it's a little United Nations.”

Thorness brought that passion and an appreciation for local seeds to the seed library in 2015. 

“It really is a food justice issue,” he said. Thorness was a P-patcher for many years, as well as an editor at Seattle Tilth (now Tilth Alliance). “Providing seeds free is another way to lower the barrier, to get people to try something, or to bring them back to their roots in some way. And those activities are proven to make people healthier and happier. So, I think every community needs a seed library,” he said. 

Sharing seeds is also about helping the planet. 

Felicia Nelson and her daughter, Sofia, of West Seattle, peruse seed packets at the Great Seattle Seed Swap at the Phinney Center on April 16, 2022. Felicia had been to seed swaps before, but Sofia, in a theme-appropriate bee consume, experienced the seed-sharing event for the first time. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut)

“Historically communities had … plants adapted to the natural environment and the cultural preferences of the people who stewarded them,” shares the Seed Libraries, a community of seed libraries coordinated by the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, in the March 2022 edition of its newsletter. When species have more genes to go around, it’s more likely that some of their individuals will survive changing climates and disease. 

“However, with the advent of ‘modern agriculture’ ... much of this diversity was bred out of the plants," the newsletter elaborates.

How the seed swap works

Thorness asked that people follow a few basic rules: take only what they can use and contribute seeds that are 3 years old or younger, since seeds do go bad. And if they’re home saved, share seeds from the most successful plants and label them with the species name and the date they were harvested. 

Containers ranged from meticulously detailed (“Carol Deppe’s Resilient Dry Bean Mix, 2020 harvest Fall City, Not tall pole beans but benefit from support”) to the alluringly brief (“2019 MUGWORT”). People left seeds on tables organized by plant type: salad greens, legumes, tomatoes, squashes, roots, brassicas (like broccoli) and even an intriguing ‘ETC.’ section. 

Some came with an idea of what they wanted, while others were there to browse and experiment. 

Michael Levy drops chard seeds into a take-home packet at the Great Seattle Seed Swap on April 16, 2022. Levy, a former professional chef, enjoys finding new-to-him plants to incorporate into his garden, which supplements his diet. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut)

“I'm always looking for new things to plant,” said Michael Levy. He used to be a professional chef, but these days, he mostly cooks for himself, growing an estimated 20% of his diet and sharing surplus with friends and family. The seed library has introduced him to plants he didn’t realize could grow here, like dragon tongue beans and shiso, an herb. He found a variety of red mountain spinach at the swap that came from Thorness’ garden. “It’s really resilient to drought, and so I thought … I’ll try it!” 

Rav Kumar showed up in search of seeds for his P-patch in Interbay. He’s trying to outfit it with local vegetables and ones he might find in India. At the swap he was particularly on the hunt for bitter melon, known as karela in Hindi. The seed swap, he said, “is a great experience. I never knew about this!” 

While gardeners like Sylvia Kantor usually buy seeds, they occasionally reuse some from their own plants. This was her first swap, an experience she expects will add some whimsy and mystery to gardening. “I don't know what I'm getting exactly. Or I don't know what ‘OAS Sunrise Teddy Bear Sunflowers’ are,” she said, holding a few packets of seeds, “but that's kind of part of the fun. It's, like, let's see what happens.”

But longtime seed swappers like Pamela Burton, who adventurously plants seed pods she collects during walks through her neighborhood, said you “pretty much can’t go wrong with [seed swap] seeds.” 

Tia Flores, back, and Samantha Bellman, front, look through seeds at the Great Seattle Seed Swap on April 16, 2022. The University of Washington students had never been to a seed swap before and were excited to find a community that speaks to their desire to grow food for others. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut)

Burton, who used to be the executive director of Tilth Alliance, also used to be in a small neighborhood seed swap group with Thorness and a few friends. That swap she said, was exclusively an exchange — but she’s impressed that the event these days also benefits from seed donations — and the joy of more people. 

“We've all been sheltered for two years. So it's insane to think that we really haven't had community that we've gotten together,” said Burton, who has been able to grow her friends’ seeds at home in the meantime. 

Sharing seeds of wisdom

The seeds at the swap often come with advice from the people who harvested them.

“If you could talk to someone who's grown [a plant] successfully next door, you can figure it will grow in your yard,” said Betty Jean Williamson, who has a garden share in Beacon Hill. “If you just buy seeds from the internet, or, you know, a hardware store, you don't know if it’s good for growing in our climate, and you don't know when to plant it to be successful.” 

And the advice goes beyond the seeds themselves. Events like the swap attract other sustainability-minded organizations that set up tables to share information, like Sustainable Ballard, Tilth Alliance and the Seattle Tree Fruit Society. They decorated tables with pamphlets about composting, educated attendees about tree pests and diseases, and offered details on other opportunities to borrow and lend gardening tools with neighbors. 

“Gardeners have always been sharers,” Thorness said. “If you have a gardening friend, I'd be surprised if that friend has not tried to give you zucchini in the middle of summer or treated you to some amazing tomatoes at the end of August. You know, it's just something we like to do. So I'm happy when I see that happening at our swaps.”

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