The 365 Ways Blog

Michael Norton is author of "365 Ways to Change the World", which provides an issue for each day of the year, interesting facts, inspiring case studies of people doing things to address the issue and ideas for action. Originally published in the UK, versions with local content have been published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. To find out more visit our website:

17 February 2008

Swap your seeds

Thousands of garden seeds are disappearing. The new-variety F1 seeds being sold by seed companies cannot be collected and used again after the plant has flowered. So for the first time in history, growers have to buy new seeds each year. This creates an expensive dependency for growers in the UK, but subsistence farmers in the developing world it is far more of a burden – they are being forced to pay more than they can afford and still with the risk that drought or flood will wipe out their harvest.

The campaign to protect traditional varieties of seeds stretches around the world. But it can all start in your garden. By growing open-pollinated varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, you can keep alive a more diverse range of seeds, conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control over what we do.

Seedy Sunday is the UK's biggest community seed swap. The aim is to protect biodiversity and take a stand against the increasing control of the seed supply by a handful of large companies.
The Seed Swap event takes place every February in Brighton and Hove (in southern England). The campaign to protect biodiversity goes on year round.

In return for a donation or in exchange for seeds you have saved, you can choose seeds from dozens of traditional varieties of garden vegetables to take home and grow yourself. The seeds are open-pollinated, heritage varieties, many of which are no longer commercially available – but are naturally well-adapted to local growing conditions, as well as being tasty and colourful.

At the seed swap, experienced local growers will be on hand to advise on the practicalities of seed saving and growing from seed, and there are films, displays and talks to inspire you to go home and get growing.

The starting point was in 2001, when two members of Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group went on holiday to Vancouver, Canada and happened upon a seed swap, organised by Sharon Rempel of Saltspring Seeds. They were so impressed that when they returned, they persuaded a group of fellow growers to help organise a similar event. The UK's first ever seed swap took place in Kemptown in Brighton in February 2002.

The event has grown to include talks, demonstrations, displays, films, plant sales, second hand books, crèche, cafe and other activities that make the event so lively today. But at heart it remains a community seed swap.

Seedy Sunday:
Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group:
Saltspring Seeds:

How to organise your own Seed Swap
Here are the four key ingredients for a successful Seed Swap:

1. The organisers: If you don't already know enough people who want to help, put up notices where you think interested people might see them – such as the library, health food shops, food co-ops or garden centres. Explain what a Seed Swap is and ask people to get in touch. You could also contact local allotments groups, and make use of internet forums / discussion lists, websites, etc. Aim for a small group of people you like and can rely on. In subsequent years, you can put the arrangements on a more formal footing. It's useful to recruit people who have the sort of administrative, communications and practical skills you will need to plan the event, keep track of finances, do publicity and run the event on the day.

2. The seeds: Seed collectors will need advance notice to collect seeds at the end of the summer before you hold your Seed Swap. The seeds should come from local gardeners and growers who grow open-pollinated varieties of vegetable. If you decide you want to be all-organic, you will need to choose organic growers. Remind them to label their seeds clearly. The more seed collectors you have, the better. Talk to other Seed Swaps around the country for advice and guidance.

3. The venue: This can be anything from a private garden to a community centre or church hall – the choice will depend on your budget and how many people you expect. You may have to book the venue well in advance, so this should be one of the first things you do once you have decided to proceed.

4. Publicity: This sounds like an afterthought, but it's essential. If no one turns up on the day, you won't have a seed swap. Publicity can't be left to the last minute; it has to be well-planned. You need to tell people know what a seed swap is, and when and where yours will be taking place.

And then go international…
Become a Kokopelli seed grower and help stamp out hunger. Their mission is to create a “Community-Supported Seed Fund” which will provide poor farmers in poor countries with the seeds they need for their gardens and small farms.

It is not hard to provide some real help. Food plants provide plenty of seeds:
• A squash or a melon contains hundreds of seeds.
• A cherry tomato contains around 70 seeds.
• A lettuce going to seed may produce up to 10,000 seeds.

A 30 foot by 30 foot garden is big enough for 150 tomato plants which would produce 6 kg of seeds. This would be enough to provide 40,000 packets each containing 30 seeds.

The Kokopelli Seed Foundation, which started in France and has now spread around the world, will advise you on what seeds to grow, and even provide you with starter seeds so that you can start up your own “seed factory”.

All seeds are welcome: tomatoes, melons, lettuces, beets, carrots, grains, pulses, peppers. Every species will find a home somewhere. If you haven’t got a garden, then do it in gro-bags on your roof or balcony.