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Swapping seeds, sharing stories in Bellingham

Jan 13th, 2011 | Category: Community

interview by Grow Northwest

The Bellingham Community Seed Swap hosted by Sustainable Bellingham and other local groups will be held on Sunday, Jan. 30. Following is an interview with one of the organizers, Shannon Maris, about the third annual event that includes seed sharing, speakers, stories and more.

How did the seed swap get started?

The seed swap got started because a few local gardeners who happened to be members of different sustainability groups in town had Heather Flores’ book Food Not Lawns. In her book she has a chapter on Seed Stewardship. Our group thought that was a relevant issue and said, “Let’s do a seed swap here in Bellingham.”

I looked up the Food Not Lawns web page and discovered Jan. 31 is International Seed Saving Day and the web page had all the information on How to  Organize a Community Seed Swap (! Suddenly we knew how and when we were going to plan a seed swap in Bellingham.

At the same time we thought having a speaker talk about the importance of saving your own seed would be a great introductory event,  and Village Books, our local and independent book store, just happened to be featuring Sustainable topics for the month of January. They also offered to host a speaker and a list of recommended books on seed saving. We asked Brian and Crystine from Uprising Seeds ( to do a presentation on their local, open pollinated, organic, seed business as well as talk about why seed saving was so important. The talk was very well attended and their information made clear the present need to preserve and maintain seeds due to increased demand and decreased availability at seed companies around the nation, corporate control of most seed companies, and the existence of genetically modified seeds being so prevalent. One of the first questions during the questions and answer period was ‘What can we do about this?’ The answer is to start growing food with open pollinated and heirloom varieties and start saving the seed. A perfect way to introduce the seed swap event two weeks later!

Local resident Gene Montague (top right) talks with a group of people interested in growing blue corn during last year’s Seed Swap. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHANNON MARIS

What are you hoping to accomplish by holding the seed swap?

To get seeds into the hands of the people who want to grow their own food, and educate the public on how and why seed saving is so important to learn and use.  Saving seed is a viable solution in these times of economic challenges, food related health issues, community resilience and food security issues.

Are you finding more people are interested this year than in the past?

We had about 100 people come to the first one, which was a wonderful surprise, and about 200 to the second annual event. The event is four hours long so there is a flow of people arriving and leaving. If it gets much larger we will need to find a larger space!

What kinds of seeds should people bring to the swap? What types are generally available?
Seeds that are not from hybrid plants are the ones that will grow true to the plant that you are harvesting seed from. Heirloom and open pollinated seeds will do that. Most of the seeds at the swap are food producing types, some flowers, herb, cover crop and medicinal seeds also show up but less than home garden types. There is an amazing variety of seeds. Commercial seed packets left over from a previous year are also fair game. Seed packets are dated and old seed doesn’t always grow, but we are a forgiving bunch of gardeners… some don’t mind taking older seed just to see if it will germinate and knowing not to rely on it.

Are there any specific seeds you hope people will bring?

Heirloom seeds that have been saved over the generations. To preserve them we need to have those seeds grown over and over by more people so the variety can stay viable and more widely available. One cold summer, flood, or crop failure could be an end to that particular variety forever, so more growers in more areas adds security and resilience to keeping a seed variety available for the future. For commercially grown seed that can be a issue, if only one region like the Skagit Valley grows all the spinach seed for the nation, and there is a crop failure or natural disaster,  it is possible to lose that seed variety forever.

Are people without seeds welcome to attend? Should they bring a donation?

Yes!  people without seeds are welcomed and needed to attend! Nature provides an abundance. The whole idea is to share that abundance and learn to grow as much food as you can.

The event is free and open to the public. We have a couple great projects that two people are doing involving free seeds “starter kits” to low income families and a local Bean and Grain Project so those wishing to donate could contribute to those projects.

Will there be information available for people who are new to growing or saving seeds?

Yes! That is a common request. Starting at 1:30 p.m. we have a presentation scheduled on the Basics of Seed Saving by a local seed saver, Celt Schira. Saving your own seeds is actually one of the “guidelines “ of the Seed Swap event. The first one is take only what you can grow, and the second one is save seed if at all possible for next year! For those experienced seed savers we have a second presentation at 2:15 p.m. on Grains and Tubers for a Nutritionally Complete Diet by Dan Borman of Orcas Island.

Any other information you’d like to add?

The Seed Swap is so much more than the exchange of seeds. Gardeners of all types, ages and experience levels meet and share their knowledge. Seeing the pods of conversations going on around the room is icing on the cake! Also, the event is at the end of January when days are still short and the weather cold, so it is a welcome post holiday haven of sharing and abundance. You leave with  plans and  hopes for Spring buzzing in your mind, and the empowerment that everyone can learn to grow their own food, and learn to save seed. Some lovely collaborations have happened too. Home owners with lots of garden space connect with people who don’t have any garden space, or people with a small garden find a place to grow the big patch of pumpkins that they wouldn’t normally have room for.

All types of seeds are available at the swap, including food producing types, flowers, herb, cover crop and medicinal. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHANNON MARIS

Some of my favorite memories:

We have a time before the swap starts for special announcements about any seed that has been brought, and it’s always amazing to hear the story behind the seeds.

One was an elder who spoke up and pulled a small ear of dried blue corn out of his work coat. He said he has been gardening his whole life and has been growing this particular variety of blue corn the whole time here in Bellingham and has never seen or heard of anything else like it, so he called it Bellingham Blue. He met another fellow at the swap who knew a lot about grain crops and seed saving and they are working on “growing out” more of this seed to keep the strain strong and viable.

Another person spoke up saying he was sent to the seed swap with a jar of white beans because the owner could not attend. The white beans have been grown by Jack Garlick, a historic family in the Ferndale area for generations and are named Garlick’s Navy Beans.

Then there was a bucket of dried scarlet runner beans called “Ma Canovi” beans, named after the woman who brought them from Italy in her pocket when she moved to the U.S. in 1920 to get married. Ma Canovi passed away at 103 years old, but a friend of the family still grows the beans and wants the beans to live on in her memory.

Another local family has been growing a particularly delicious variety of Oregon snap bean that they have kept alive between members of the family each year, so if one garden fails they know a brother, sister or in-law will be growing beans and they can get seed from them. She brought a jar of the beans to share.

If each town or neighborhood started a seed swap we would be having lots of fun and growing more food locally. Just don’t have them on the same day, it would be a shame to miss one!

The 3rd annual Seed Swap will be held Sunday, Jan. 30 from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Center for Expressive Arts, 2nd Floor, 1317 Commercial St. (above Tivoli Restaurant & Uisce Pub), in Bellingham. All are welcome, including people who do not have seeds to share. The event includes  “Seed Savings Basics” with Celt Schira at 1:30 p.m.  and “Grains & Tubers for a Complete Diet” with Dan Borman at 2:15 p.m.  There will be networking, tea, finger food potluck, and more. People with extra seed to share should place seeds in labeled envelopes or containers. Sponsored by Sustainable Bellingham, Earthcare Garden Designs, Friends of Food Not Lawns, Forest Garden Urban Ecology Center, Center for Local Self-Reliance. Volunteers are welcome.

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