The ongoing pandemic is fuelling enormous uncertainty. Job insecurity and loss of income are putting pressure on food banks as more and more people struggle to make ends meet. The Trussell Trust, which supports a UK-wide network of food banks, estimates that half of those who used a food bank at the start of the pandemic had never done so before. The situation has only deteriorated since then.
It’s one of the reasons we have seen such a surge in interest from those looking to grow more of their own food. Another is the disruption to the food supply witnessed early on in the pandemic, when shelves were stripped of essentials such as fresh fruits and vegetables (and toilet paper!).
Seeds are, of course, central to a thriving vegetable garden. Gardening catalogues offer an Aladdin’s cave of horticultural riches but the price of packets of seeds quickly adds up. Fortunately there are other ways to pick seeds up, often for free, or at most a nominal fee. Seed libraries, swaps and exchanges are your ticket to a prudent plot.
1. Seed Libraries
Seed libraries are local resources where gardeners can seek out seeds for very little or nothing at all. Set up in public places such as libraries and community centres, they help to spread the joy of growing food (and other plants), while potentially serving as repositories for precious local varieties ideally suited to the surrounding climate and soil.
Carefully saved seed is the name of the game, but other seeds – donated by generous seed companies, for example – might also be offered. Keen gardeners have the opportunity to share their abundance, while those new to gardening can seek out something special. Take what you need, then pay back with your own saved seeds once you are in a position to return the favour.
Seed libraries are a pretty big deal in the US, where well-organised groups such as the Up Beet! community of seed libraries pool resources and share expertise with anyone looking to run their own seed library.
Quite a few seed libraries have sprouted up during the pandemic. One example is the three seed libraries launched by the Alameda Backyard Growers in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Simple weatherproof boxes are stocked with season-appropriate seeds, complete with growing instructions. Search for a seed library near you and see what you can find.
Seed libraries in the UK are a rarer phenomenon – ironic given our reputation as a nation of gardeners. Nevertheless, we do at least have our trusty Heritage Seed Library. Run by Garden Organic, this library of unusual vegetable varieties holds approximately 800 unusual open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties. Membership costs £18 a year, for which you’ll receive a seed list containing around 150 of these varieties. Posted out in December, members then have until the end of February to order up to six packets of seeds to grow on and treasure.
This may not be the cheapest way to source seeds initially but, as these seeds are open-pollinated, with a little diligence the seed of each and every variety may be saved from year to year. In time you could build up your own collection of special varieties and a vegetable garden quite unlike any other.
2. Seed Swaps and Exchanges
Seed swaps are just that – a venue where gardeners can meet and swap seeds. Events are steadily increasing in popularity as interest in growing food grows like the crops we aspire to harvest. Plants are usually swapped alongside the seeds.
The biggest event here in the UK takes place on the south coast in Brighton. Scheduled for the first Sunday in February, this year’s Seedy Sunday will look a lot different given the current situation, so check the website carefully if you intend to go.
Seed Sovereignty’s website is another great source of information for everything seedy, including details of community seed banks and other initiatives that promote fair and resilient seed systems.
There are thousands of local seed swaps around the globe. They come and go but the unstoppable trend is for more of them. Search online for a seed swap or exchange near you; a little detective work is sure to pay off.
3. Online Seed Exchanges
Even outside of a pandemic, there are obvious benefits to casting the net further to search a wider range of horticultural treasures. Online seed exchanges are a great place to hunt out something truly rare, or perhaps a distinctive vegetable that resonates with you.
Search online for seed exchanges; Facebook groups are a good place to start. In the US, sites such as the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange open up the seed swap concept to a national audience. Anyone can browse the exchange, but to request seed you’ll need to sign up. The Houzz Seed Exchange is another alternative worth investigating.
4. Save Your Own Seeds
Once you’ve dipped your toe in the water and your crops are growing, you can cut costs further by saving some of your own seeds for the following season. This is a fantastic way to keep gardening costs down and, in time, the seeds you save will become more and more suited to the very specific conditions you grow in.
We have lots of articles and videos on saving seeds (and germinating them). If it’s your first time, start with Barbara’s article on planning for seed saving and lay the groundwork now for an abundant future at minimal cost.