Like a kid in a candy store, I have been perusing recently-arrived seed catalogs with hope and delight. And though this is probably one of my favorite reading materials to curl up with by the woodstove, I know that there are far more ways to get good, fresh seeds than filling out the form at the back of each catalog. Before seed companies, before exclusive hybrid cultivars, and before seeds arrived in the mail in neat paper packages, seeds were shared or found in a much more visceral hand-to-hand manner. These old methods still work today. And, as I have found, sometimes, excellent seeds are just a walk or a conversation away.
Here are some of my best tips and ideas for how to acquire interesting garden seeds, for free, in less-than-modern ways.
Save Your Seeds
One of the most self-sufficient homesteading skills you can add to your knowledge base is an ever-growing knowledge of how to save seeds for next year’s planting. If your garden is dependent on a seed order every year…what would happen if those seeds stopped arriving in the mail?
Thankfully, you will never have to face that gloomy prospect if you know how to grow and save your own heirloom seeds (and I do say “heirloom” because these are the varieties of plants that can produce true-to-type seeds. Hybrids can’t do that, and in some cases, they are incapable of producing viable seeds in the first place). This is no small body of knowledge, either. To sustainably self-produce seeds of your own, you’ll need to understand plant families, pollination styles, cross-breeding, overwintering of biennials, and, in some cases, blossom isolation to prevent hybridization with wild varieties.
Don’t let that list of need-to-knows intimidate you. Thankfully, this garden wisdom has a history as long as agriculture, and there are abundant resources to get the total beginner started. Suzanne Ashworth’s excellent book, Seed To Seed, is one of the best books I know on the subject, and is appropriate for both the novice and the experienced gardener (and it just so happens to be available for free, legal perusal at this link ).
Find or Start a Local Seed Library
Did you know that there are libraries out there that allow you to borrow far, far more than books? Seed libraries are one of these fantastic places. The basic premise is that a gardener can “check out” heirloom seeds at the beginning of the growing season, grow themselves some vegetables, fruits, or flowers, and then “return” harvested seeds from their own plantings. In this way, the seed library’s store of seeds is always kept fresh, the local community always has access to locally-adapted, heirloom seeds, and a degree of food autonomy is achieved by the population in the growing vicinity. Obviously, using a seed library correctly requires a certain degree of gardening and seed-saving expertise, but these are skills that anyone can learn with a bit of interest and a bit of dirt under their fingernails.
There may be a seed library at your local branch, and you just had no idea it existed. This website has a registry of all the currently known seed libraries—well over 500 as of 2023, and increasing every year.
If you find yourself in a community that lacks a seed library, don’t despair. You may be just the person to get one started. This website gives you all the information you need to approach your local library (or willing public location) and get a seed library added to their inventory.
Harvest Seeds from Your Food
Though this is technically not a “free” way to get seeds, it is a way to glean viable seeds from provisions that may already exist in your home or grocery cart.
Though we don’t always think of it, much of the food that we prepare for dinner is, in some form, a seed. Whole grains, nuts, beans, pulses, and even some spices are merely seeds labeled with a different name. Some of those foodstuffs have been processed enough to become unplantable, but not all. Here’s an incomplete list of dried goods that can double as garden seeds.
- Spices sold as whole seeds, such as dill, caraway, fennel, fenugreek, cumin, mustard, or nigella/kalonji. Bear in mind that organic seeds have a better chance at viability, especially if they are not irradiated.
- Legumes sold in dry form. I have successfully grown pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, and lentils from “food” beans. Note that split peas will not grow, as they have been mechanically cracked apart.
- Grains sold in whole form, such as wheat berries, rye berries, quinoa, and sorghum. Pearled barley, oat groats, and cleaned millet will not sprout, as these grains have been processed far enough to inhibit sprouting.
- Other edible seeds such as chia and flax should be able to grow.
Fruit Pits and Seeds
Many of the seeds we eat around, spit out, and cut from our finished dishes can repay you in a harvest for the low price of throwing them into some soil. Planting these seeds will be an adventure, however, because there is a very, very high likelihood that the resulting seedlings will be some sort of unpredictable hybrid. You can find such “adventure seeds” from seeded watermelons, apples, oranges, pears, peaches, avocados, plums, apricots, tomatoes, etc. Any seed pulled from a sweet, matured fruit should have life to it. My favorite plant I ever brought to life was a stray date pit found in a package of supposedly pitted dates—it made a beautiful palm tree that was totally out of place in the Ohio kitchen where it grew. Since there’s no guarantee that they will grow, plant as many as you can to hedge your bets.
You can also gain similarly viable (and likely similarly hybridized) seeds from any hard-rinded winter squash.
Now, that said, not every seed you find in a grocery store or farmer’s market vegetable is mature enough to grow again. Many of the vegetables we enjoy are eaten in their immaturity, such as cucumbers and zucchini (a mature specimen of either of these fruits has a hard rind, much like a watermelon or winter squash). Peppers are another iffy fruit: if they have reached their mature color (in many cases, red), their seeds are likely viable, but otherwise, they will not grow.
Gather Seeds from the Wild
Plants are all around us, constantly producing seeds in the wild whether we like it or not. Why not take advantage of this abundant bounty by gleaning seeds from the fields and forests around your home? Oftentimes, gathering seeds does no harm to the parent plant—they offer their seeds freely, after all—and won’t even affect the surrounding area in the slightest. You can gain oak, maple, and pine seedlings from fallen acorns, samaras, or pine cones, beautiful native flowers from roadside echinacea or elderberry, and delicious wild greens from wild spinach or broad-leaved plantain. Native plants will grow better in your soil than foreign transplants, and they also come with the bonus of naturally supporting native pollinator populations.
All those fancy-shmancy, wimpy, storebought flowers get all the attention: I’m perfectly happy with my tough-as-nails, wild-foraged plantings of Wild Bergamot (found along the edge of the forest), Violets (happily transplanted from the vegetable garden), Dittany (growing in abundance along the northern fence), and Black-Eyed Susans (absolutely everywhere in our hayfield, but I couldn’t resist transplanting some closer to the house, too!)
The one risk with gathering seeds in the wild (aside from getting snagged on blackberry bushes and getting poison ivy on your ankles) is potentially gathering invasive plants and spreading their virulent presence on your own land. I would recommend knowing the identity of the wild plants you gather before you spread them on your sod.
Join or Start A Seed Swap
Seed swaps are exactly what they sound like: a gathering of like-minded gardeners who know how to save seeds and freely share them every year. These are sometimes highly organized affairs such as the Seed Savers Exchange, or informal get-togethers that happen among friends. Seed swaps are a great opportunity to get varieties that are locally grown, as well as a chance to learn from venerable, older members of the community with their passed-down seeds and passed-down wisdom.
Of course, with seed swaps, you’re at the mercy of the gardening expertise of other gardeners. Can you actually trust the newbie gardener who brings three different homegrown corn varieties as their contribution? Likely not—those seeds are nearly guaranteed cross-bred hybrids (unless a first-time gardener somehow managed to know how to bag the corn tassels before the pollen started flying, hand-collected pollen, and distributed it appropriately.) I’d say the risk is worth the gathering, however. The gardening community and rapport that can be built from such a swap far outweighs the occasional cabbage-kale seeds or the not-sure-what-it-is squash that can arise. And who knows? Maybe the weirdo hybrid that you acquire from such a situation will end up being a standout new variety…that does happen, after all!
I hope this list of ideas on how to get seeds for free can release you from the four-sided constraints of a seed package and, instead, get you more directly connected with your land, your community, and your garden.
About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city. But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.