Checking the mail is always a small act of joy for seed lovers during the plodding last weeks of winter. Beyond the clutter of neon-hued junk advertisements and fussy stark-white bills, pulling down the lip of the mailbox brings with it the hope that a harbinger of gardening season will be among the pile of paper that’s landed. In most years, you hope for the seed catalogs first: those coffee-table-worthy, plant-filled works of art with covers that explode in geometric patterns of coneflowers or trippy tie-dyed slicing tomatoes. Next, you hope for the seed packets you’ve ordered to arrive—a type of promise fulfilled and a promise to come. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat glued to my front window waiting for our mail carrier to putter by in his squat little truck, hopefully with seeds in hand.
Like most things, though, 2021’s seed experience is a little different. More people are building raised beds, tilling up the ground, and container gardening than at any time in recent memory, leading to a serious shortage of seeds across the country. In the past, only ultra-hard-to-find or rare seeds would sell out, so companies didn’t worry too much about the prospect of being completely wiped out of all carrot varieties or every single pickling cucumber. This year, however—whether it’s a carryover from the wave of “victory gardens” in 2020 or simply because people want to spend more time outside after months of being cramped indoors—gardening is the new pastime of choice for many previously dirt-averse individuals, and they’re all clamoring for seeds.
In my own seed buying this year, I was surprised to find that even one of my favorite, under-the-radar seed sources, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, had implemented a new system to help manage the overwhelming demand: Orders could only be placed starting at 10:00 a.m. each day and wrapped up early so that the small company could process shipping. Needless to say, it was the first time I’ve ever set my alarm to ensure I could buy heirloom strawflower seeds.
“We usually consider January the first busy month, but in a normal year, it builds up throughout January going into February,” says Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure. “This year, January was busier than we have ever been. There was day after day of busier-than-we’ve-ever-been. It was a little bit of a surprise, and we wondered what would have happened if we had tried to keep the web store open all the time.”
And so when seed companies are selling out left and right, and it seems nearly impossible to luck into a packet of the morning glories you’ve been eyeing, then how do you get the seeds you want? By swapping them, of course.
Seed swapping has been going on for time immemorial, as people traded the seeds they had for seeds they needed as a means of both cultivation and survival. And even before seeds became this year’s hot ticket item, the practice of seed swapping—particularly for local, heirloom, or rare saved seeds—has been experiencing something of a revival, as long-time seed savers like Bill Best of Tennessee’s Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center helped usher in a movement all about the importance of celebrating, preserving, and sharing heirloom seeds. (If you’re interested in saving seeds from your plants, I can’t recommend Best’s book, Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste, enough.)
And while in-person events, like the annual Appalachian Seed Swap in Pikeville, Kentucky, are still on hold for the time being, seed swapping resources and online spaces for trading seeds directly with others are popping up everywhere. There’s Seed Savers Club, a “virtual community garden” featuring a variety of seeds for trade—from bee balm to scarlet runner beans—including many native plants from Central Appalachia. Slow Food USA has launched the Share a Seed program, where people with leftover seeds can send them to different Slow Food chapters for redistribution into the community. On a more old school front, message boards and forums have been the longtime backbone of online seed swapping, with Seed Savers Exchange serving as the grandmother of them all, particularly for unusual seeds. Discovering a mailbox stuffed with personalized envelopes from fellow seed-heads and little surprises included along with the swapped seeds—a recipe, a history, growing instructions—makes seed swapping a bit like getting a new pen pal, too.
Many local libraries also have “seed library” programs, making taking home a packet of basil seeds—or donating your leftover seeds—as simple as checking out a book. (Just look at this charming, repurposed card catalog from the Blount County, Tennessee, library that’s now filled with packets of seeds.) And if you’re really committed to finding new ways to swap seeds in your neighborhood, consider setting up a seed lending library, a free resource that will provide easy access to seeds for others in the same spirit that free little libraries provide books and community fridges provide food.
“In thinking back to Y2K, a lot of people got more into seeds than usual that year,” Wallace recalls. “The next year, a lot of those people stuck. And so hopefully, that will be true with these new gardeners, too. If the world is more normal next year, a good number of these gardeners will be back and have found a new love in their life—in the garden.”
So, sure, the anticipation around receiving seeds you’ve ordered in the mail might not be quite as great this year. But there’s an opportunity for a different, perhaps even better, form of anticipation: waiting on seeds you’ve swapped to arrive and daydreaming about not just the plants that will grow, but what kind of heartfelt connection you’ve made with fellow seed swappers in the process.