Landrace Gardening: Seed Swaps

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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I use seed swaps as in inexpensive way to add lots of genetic diversity to my crops. I usually don’t care much about the specific traits of specific cultivars, I am mostly seeking to add genetic diversity to my garden, and then I can do survival-of-the-fittest selection after the plants have cross-pollinated. I don’t like to mix hot peppers with sweet peppers, but within broad guidelines like that pretty much any kind of seed is welcome to try to add it’s genes to my landraces.

When I was buying industrialized seed, my seed bill was over $1000 per year. Last year, by growing my own seed, and using seed swaps as the primary source of new varieties, my seed bill was less than $100 including shipping. I acknowledge that seed swaps are time consuming, but what else is a vegetable farmer to do when the ground is covered with snow from November until March?

When I am starting a new landrace or adding diversity to an existing landrace I might only plant 10 seeds of each new variety. I might plant 5 to 100 varieties. I end up with lots of packets of leftover seed which are almost full. I often list the opened packets in seed swaps, and exchange them for something else that I’d like to trial. Sometimes what I get in swap are partially used seed packets that other people have trialed in their gardens. I also get a lot of home-grown seed. Sometimes they are listed as “might be cross pollinated”. I love those kinds of exchanges! The more different kinds of parents there are in a seed packet the more opportunities I have to find a family group that thrives in my garden.

Another kind of swap that I really enjoy is trades with the local neighbors. I might swap one kind of dry bean for another. My daddy has grown Charleston Gray watermelon for decades. It thrives in his garden. I beg seeds from him every year because I don’t have the proper isolation distance to keep it pure, and it’s a family tradition, and my garden would feel lonely without it. I visit my regular trading partners each winter and take my seed stash with me. We compare notes and swap seeds. I usually take a seed-bank archive copy of my garden with me to the farmer’s market. People often bring seeds from their gardens and trade for something I’m growing. I really like these kind of trades because I have found that the locally-adapted varieties that my neighbors have grown are often much better performing than seeds I obtain from far away growers.

 I am currently participating in a seed swap that has many hundreds of species listed and lots of named cultivars: flowers, herbs, vegetables, medicinal plants, ornamentals, and trees. We call it The Hog Wild Seed Swap because we pig out on seeds. Many of my landraces contain a significant amount of ancestors that come from the Hoggy Swap. One year I even acquired lichens! I am inspired by William Woys Weaver’s blog on Mother Earth News about Edible Dahlia Bulbs, so I am using the swap to obtain many different kinds of dahlias that I can screen for edibility, for tuber productivity, and for the ability to set seeds prolifically. I’ll watch for varieties that are highly attractive to pollinators so that I can get lots of cross-pollination going on which will give me more diversity to choose from. I participate in a variety of other seed swaps during the winter.

Seed swaps are an inexpensive say to add lots of biodiversity to a garden. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art oflandrace gardeningin order to feed his community more effectively.