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Give a Seed, Take a Seed

February 2, 2012

I’ve heard of many types of swaps – clothing swaps, book swaps – but never a seed swap until I started getting involved in gardening. Why would anyone want to swap seeds if you could just buy them at the grocery store? But this weekend, I got to find out by participating in my first ever seed swap at Brookside Gardens via organizer Washington Gardener Magazine.

The seed swap started out with a couple of guest speakers that communicated both their knowledge and passion for gardening. Unfortunately, due to my poor planning and inability to read a GPS, I missed the beginning of the first talk by Jon Traunfeld from the University of Maryland Extension Service. Nonetheless, his talk on seed starting tips (available here on video) gave me a couple of really good reminders. I started plants from seed last year, but based on some of my results, I could definitely use some improvement. For example, I have a ton of seed packets from last year that are now a couple of years old. Traunfeld pointed out that a great way to test these seeds is to take a few (10-20), place them in a wet paper towel, put it in a plastic bag with holes, and place it on top of the fridge for a week. If 70 percent or more of the seeds sprout, you’ve got a good package. Instead of just randomly planting seeds and crossing my fingers in hope that they’ll sprout, this technique could save me some serious frustration and time.

I enjoyed the second speaker, Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, even more. She had an incredible joy in regards to plants, constantly referring to the photos of delicious produce as “eye candy.” Some truly lovely photos – never have I lusted after winter squash quite that way. She also had some great advice on how to save seeds from winter squash and peppers. Apparently, the flesh of a pumpkin is still good for three weeks after harvest, which also happens to be the perfect time to harvest its seeds for saving. (On the other hand, you should also keep summer squash for at least three weeks after harvest to save the seeds, by which point you shouldn’t be able to nick the outside with your fingernail. Needless to say, it is highly recommended not to eat the flesh on these.)

Following the speakers, we had a networking and snack break. I noticed a couple of things about the crowd at our networking break. First, most of the people were female – there were a few males, but not a lot. Second, most of the attendees were middle-aged or older – I think I found the two other people under 35, one of which was wearing an awesomely nerdy shirt. Third, based on the number of people who said they were from outside Montgomery County, there were very few folks from D.C. Although this could be in part because of many of my D.C. friends’ attitude that “and why would we want to go to Maryland?” I do think that we as a community need to find more ways to mix up the two groups. I think there’s a lot that young urban gardeners could learn from the older, suburban folks and vice versa.

Finally, came the swap itself! We went up a few groups at a time to the seed tables, which were split up by produce, herbs, flowers, exotics, and many others. So I finally found out the answer to my question at the beginning of the event – why swap seeds at all? There are both ecological reasons and fun reasons. The ecological reason is to maximize genetic diversity. If you continuously save your own seeds and grow plants from them year after year, you’ll end up with a minimum of genetic diversity, making your seeds more susceptible to diseases and pests. However, because few, if any, recreational gardeners save their seeds to this extent, this reason isn’t all that compelling. More interesting is the fun aspect. Of course, there’s the seed swap itself, which was basically a gardening party. Then, there’s the ability to collect seeds you would have never known about otherwise. When Kathy Jentz, the Washington Gardener editor, asked participants to describe some of the more unique seeds they brought, one woman stood up and talked about “mouse melons.” According to her, the plants produce adorable little melons that taste a little like melons and a little like cucumbers. I was so intrigued that I picked up a packet of them, which I never would have otherwise.

At the end of the day, I walked off with a bag full of seed packages, some great information on gardening, and a reminder that spring is just around the corner.

Flowers blooming at Brookside Gardens, where the seed swap was held. Is it spring yet?

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