Gardening on a Budget: 10 ways to save on seeds

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Durham County, NC free seed library

It took awhile, but it’s finally cold in the piedmont of North Carolina. It’s been gray and mushy for weeks. Now it’s gray and the mush is crispy frost in the morning. But the seed catalogues have come and there’s a reason people call it garden porn. It’s my winter solstice dance. Planning the garden for spring brings a little warmth and light back into my sun-deprived life. But the paying for seeds part always brings me down.

Now is the time to start gathering seeds if you want a spring and summer garden, even more so if you are trying to be frugal. It seems early, but it’s just the right time, especially if you are a parent or a procrastinator and taking action takes several weeks. Here are some tips for how to get seeds without spending a lot of money.

  1. Crowdsource. Just ask. Even if you don’t know what you want, asking will bring out all the garden crazies and then you’ll know who to ask for help and who to organize seed sharing with next year. If you don’t do a lot of social media or live somewhere that doesn’t seem to have a lot of active gardeners, get on an online forum and ask. Homesteading Today is my absolute favorite. It’s wild and woolly and full of incredibly thoughtful and helpful people. They’ve got a perpetual seed swap going in the gardening forum.
  2. Ask your neighbors. Maybe ask for gardening tips first, then hit them up for some spare seeds. Just look for who has plants around and spends time paying attention to them. Most people are thrilled to get more folks into gardening and can’t wait to help you grow a million more things than you have room for. It’s a great way to make friends.
  3. From the library. For free. That’s right, the library. There are now over 200 public libraries organizing seed catalogues where seed deposits are made and can be “checked out” and “returned” at the end of the season with some you grew or can contribute. There’s even a social network for it. The fabulous city of Durham has an incredible website full of resources to accompany their seed library. Here’s an article about another NC seed library.
  4. Go in with friends. I keep a little list of gardener friends to coordinate with before buying seed. My first year growing sweet potatoes I ordered slips with a neighbor who needed a bigger order for discounted prices.
  5. Organize or get in on a seed swap. If you’ve ever gardened at all you probably have spare seed. Keep a list going and hook into your network to find other gardeners who want to share. What one person tried and didn’t like much, another might love. And since seed don’t keep forever but most of us don’t need as many as come in a pack, costs can be kept way down this way. But this brings us to #6, which is a stealthy but important money saver.
  6. Take proper care of the seeds you have. To keep seed from going bad they need to be kept dry and at a constant, cool temperature. You can buy neat little containers for this, or just keep your seeds in a tightly closed glass jar in either your fridge or freezer. I have seed that I purchased 6 years ago still germinating perfectly because they’ve been happily tucked away in the fridge. I pull them out twice a year usually and organize for the coming season and then keep what I’m using immediately in the door of my refrigerator to pull out at planting time. The rest goes back in the freezer. Over time this is probably the way I’ve saved the most money on seed, and is most helpful for those crops you really like and plant over and over again.
  7. Save seed. Some plants are easy to save seed from, others not so much. Some things cross-pollinate with other varieties to produce useless seed. You can do more or less of this depending on how much time and interest you have. I  do a little more seed saving every year, but it felt overwhelming when I was first getting started. I also had a few bad experiences with sweet peppers crossing with a fiery guindilla I brought back from the Basque Country and making every bite of my paprikas a terrifying game of Russian Roulette. But this year I saved kale, radish, cilantro, and sorghum seed, which are all very easy to let go to seed and easy to harvest. The lettuce was a bit more labor intensive and I forgot what varieties I had by the time they were bolting. I save sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger and turmeric through the winter and use my own saved root to plant the next year.
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    Turmeric and ginger being separated and either processed for preservation in brandy or repotted for over-wintering

    Here is a short and sweet intro to seed saving. This is a great comprehensive take. The Seed Savers Exchange also has a lot of information on their website for beginners, including this nifty video.

  8. Buy off season. Often grocery stores or other places that sell retail seeds will put them on sale at the end of summer. Now that you know how to save seed, just buy things then and save for next year!
  9. Join an exchange. If you are a more serious gardener or homesteader and you buy enough seed and try enough new things, joining an exchange can make sense. I finally made a regular annual commitment to Seed Savers Exchange last year and used the exchange to get seed garlic in interesting varieties. Membership also gets you a 10% discount on seeds.
  10. Let wild edibles go to seed. I eat and make herbal remedies from a lot of wild greens. They tend to be the most nourishing. I notice the dandelion, chickweed, yellow dock, plaintain, purslane, creasy greens, and other greens that reseed themselves readily in my yard. Don’t cut them all down or pull them all up, you can nibble them year round, especially in winter when not much else is growing. I let too much dandelion go in my garden and thought I’d regret it, but after a long rain I pulled them from the loose soil and now have a lovely harvest to dry out for soups and smoothies this winter. Here’s a neat list.
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