How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare Seeds

How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare and Heirloom Seeds - How to Grow Rare Seeds | Whole-Fed Homestead

If you’ve only ever grown varieties like Big Boy tomatoes and Butternut squash… you’re in for a surprise, and a treat! As folks who take pleasure from sticking their hands in the dirt, who can’t wait to eat the first fresh green bean from the garden every summer, and who appreciate things like old mason jars, fresh eggs, and good neighbors- I think you’ll LOVE diving into the world of rare seeds.

Growing plants that practically no one else is growing is a rush! Sometimes what grows from these tiny seeds hasn’t been seen by anyone in years. Many of these plants have incredible stories behind them- a form of edible, living history. Seeds have been smuggled across country lines sewn into the hems of women’s dresses, just so that they could keep their family heirloom plants. Some seeds have been lost for years, only to be discovered in a tin can in someone’s attic and brought back from near extinction.

Not only is growing rare seed fun, like really really fun… it is also vitally important.

Something has happened to our modern food- it has been bred to be convenient, easy, and shippable. And in the process, we’ve bred the flavor right out of it. We want green beans without strings and apples that won’t bruise. But where’s the flavor? Where’s the fun? It’s no wonder that we’re eating less vegetables than ever before… because they are generally boring and tasteless.

I’ve heard some alarming statistics about our food supply- Joseph Simcox, botanical explorer and passionate advocate for saving and sharing seeds, bringing forgotten species back, and discovering new ways to feed the world states:

“Prior to colonization, Native Americans were harvesting and eating over 3,500 different plants. They were all delicious and plentiful,” he said. “In our world today, 90 percent of the world’s calories come from 15 species of plants. It’s absurd. Over the course of human history over 20,000 different plants have been eaten. We’ve narrowed that down to 15.”

That floors me! I don’t know what his sources are for this statement, but even if this is partially true, it’s very alarming. Luckily, there is something we can do about it! There is a lot of plant life from all over the world, just waiting to be re-discovered and introduced back into our diets. Every year I walk around the garden, in disbelief that I get to grow and eat all this incredible, diverse, and tasty food.

I’ve had a lot of fun discovering some of the rare and heirloom plants that exist- and I think you will too.

It’s not hard to get started growing rare seeds, and once you get started it’s pretty easy! If you’ve looked at any of the heirloom seed companies, chances are that you’ve already seen plenty of rare and diverse veggies- and shopping at these places is a great start!

But what’s really neat about growing rare seeds is the people that you can connect with. Some of the rarest and coolest seeds are hidden in personal seed collections, of which the owners are often more than willing to share… Like baseball cards for gardeners, swapping seeds with other people who like to grow rare things is half the fun!

How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare Seeds

1. Start to Build Your Collection
There are a lot of great seed companies out there with semi-rare seeds for reasonable prices, and this is a great place to start! Pick out a handful of varieties that are interesting to you and get growing!

Try something you’ve never had before- like turnips, purple snow peas, a funny looking squash, or Asian long beans!

colorful heirloom tomatoes, How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare and Heirloom Seeds - How to Grow Rare Seeds | Whole-Fed Homestead

Hands down, my favorite place to buy the RAREST of rare seeds is The Rare Vegetable Seed Consortium. Other great places are Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company. I’ve purchased from all of these places and have always been delighted with the service and the seeds.

The neat thing about seeds is that you can multiply them yourself. Building a collection of seeds will give you fodder to be able to trade with others down the road- which is how you really increase your number of seeds and find extremely rare varieties that you can’t even buy anywhere. Having a collection of semi-rare seeds is what gets you in the door to be able to trade with other people who grow some really cool stuff!

2. Build Your Collection Slowly & Start Growing
It has taken me a few years of gardening in order to grow enough varieties and quantity to be able to trade with people. I wish I had been saving seeds from the beginning… Gosh I wish I would have known people did this kind of thing! Seed-saving wasn’t even on my radar.

Don’t become overwhelmed and think you have to plant a hundred different varieties all at the same time. You don’t want to take the fun out of growing vegetables! If you’ve never started seeds indoors before, check out my instructions on how to get started. Some seeds can be planted right into the ground and others do better when started inside under lights before moving outdoors- this will depend on your climate and the variety of seeds.

So start slow, grow what interests you, and aim to plant a handful of new varieties each year.

3. Practice Safe Seed Saving
There’s a lot to learn about saving seed, and each genus of plant has its own rules for what to do and what not to do when saving seeds with the intention of growing the same plant next season.

The Holy Grail of seed saving books: Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth

If you are serious about saving seeds, you ought to get a copy of this book immediately. Find it —> HERE. This book teaches you exactly how to save seeds for every type of plant. It’s one of, if not the most comprehensive guides available.

The premise of safe seed saving is this: when a flower is pollinated, that is- when the male pollen comes in contact with the female ovule, both of these things need to be from the same type of plant in order to have seeds that will produce the same plant the following year. Insects and wind move pollen around your garden, and even your neighborhood willy nilly, so we need to control this process.

hand pollinating squash, How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare and Heirloom Seeds - How to Grow Rare Seeds | Whole-Fed Homestead

If the pollen isn’t from the exact same plant variety (like: black beauty zucchini, black cherry tomato, butternut squash), the resulting seed that the plant produces will be a mutt and won’t be “true.” When someone grows that seed the following year, the plant produced will be a weird combination of two different types of plants, and not at all like the parent plant you wanted it to be.

Learning proper techniques for pollinating plants so that the seeds are true is an important part of being a seed collector and trader. When you are passing along seed to others, and trading for rare varieties, they must be true seed.

4. Join Seed-Saving & Trading Circles and Start Swapping!
Trading and participating in seed swaps is a phenomenal way to gain a lot of awesome seeds quickly, and for very little money. I hear about in-person seed swaps from time to time, but most take place over the internet these days.

There are person to person swaps: where you find someone who is looking for what you have, and they, in return have something you are interested in. This usually doesn’t require much inventory and is something you can start your first year after saving seeds!

There are many swaps organized by seed saving groups and are often centered around a particular type of vegetable.

For example, I participated in two group swaps this winter:
1. Tomato Seed Swap: I sent in 3 different varieties of tomato seeds, 15 packets of each variety with 15 seeds in each of them. In return I received 45 different tomato seed varieties (and all for the price of shipping, like $3!). This was great for a beginner because it only required me to have three different varieties of seeds.

2. Bean Seed Swap: for this swap I sent in 16 different varieties of beans, each packet containing 4-12 bean seeds, depending on the rarity. I won’t get into the technicalities of the swap, but because of the way it was set up, this was a great one for a “beginner” and in return I received over 50 new varieties of beans, peas and other legumes. No charge other than sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to get my swapped seeds back. To buy all of those varieties would have cost on average $3 per seed packet X 50 varieties = $150 in seeds.

rare bean swap, How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare and Heirloom Seeds - How to Grow Rare Seeds | Whole-Fed Homestead

One of the best places to join other rare seed enthusiast and participate in swaps is through Facebook groups. These groups are great places to connect with seed-savers, increase your knowledge, and see what other people are growing and trading. You can even join the group and simply observe and learn from others, without actively participating. All of the swaps I have done have been through people I have met through various seed-enthusiast Facebook groups.

These groups are also a great place to ask questions. I’ve found gardeners and seed-traders to be some of the nicest, most generous folks I’ve met! They welcome newbies and are a great source of encouragement. After all, part of the fun of growing rare seeds is sharing them with others and hoping that they spread across the nation!

Almost weekly I see someone offering up free seeds- usually for just the cost of postage, so even if you have nothing to trade, you may be able to build up your collection through the generosity of others.

5. Be Mindful of Seed Trading Etiquette
There are some unwritten rules in the seed-trading world. Most of them are common-courtesy, and most of them are grounds for getting kicked out of seed-trading groups. There is actually a seed-trading black list…

  1. Never ask someone for seeds outright (unless they are clearly offering them for trade). People often post about the varieties they are growing with pictures and stories- don’t say: “Hey, can I have some of those?!” or even, “I’d love to have those!” Not cool. What you can say is: “Wow, those are beautiful! Do you have any seed available for trade?” Of course, you actually have to have something worthwhile to trade then.
  2. Always, always keep your end of a trade up, and try to do it in a timely manner. If you’ve arranged a trade with someone and don’t follow through, you will likely build a bad reputation and will have a hard time trading with anyone else in the future.
  3. Don’t try to sell seeds in a seed-trading group. Unless it is specifically allowed, it is usually not allowed to ask for money for seeds. Some people will advertise that they have seeds to give away “for SASE,” which means that if you send a self-addressed stamped enveloped, they will send you back seeds for free.
  4. Most trading groups are against genetically modified seeds and don’t allow hybrid seeds (which makes good sense because you can’t save true seed from a hybrid). Just something to be mindful of when choosing varieties to buy and grow.

6. Join the Gardens Across America Project

This is something really, really cool. Gardens Across America is a project aimed to bring Americans together through the joys of gardening, seed saving and sharing. Basically, if you are willing to save and handle seeds properly, you can apply for the program and if accepted, will be sent (free of charge) a small collection of rare seeds to grow out. Really rare seeds. All you have to do is send back half of the seeds you’ve collected at the end of your growing season.

rare heirloom beans, How to Get Started Collecting & Growing Rare and Heirloom Seeds - How to Grow Rare Seeds | Whole-Fed Homestead

I hope this information helps you get started in collecting and growing rare seeds! Growing lost varieties of plants and being able to take a bite out of a vegetable that no one else for hundreds of miles has, is incredibly satisfying. And fun. It’s just so much fun!

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