Before chain nurseries and superstores rose to prominence, gardeners relied on seed swaps to expand their gardens. The practice not only saved gardeners money, but also promoted plant diversity and preservation.
Much like the gardeners of the past, employees at Mercer Botanic Gardens also swap seeds, just on a much larger scale.
“We store surplus seeds to share or trade with other botanical institutions, gardens, and universities,” said Jacob Martin, Mercer greenhouse manager. “Sharing materials also helps preserve plants. If your only plant died, but you shared some seeds with another garden and those seeds grew, then they can send you a plant or even seeds back.”
With thousands of plants to choose from, Martin said staff members usually have their pick of the best seeds.
“We collect seeds from specimen plants first,” he said. “These plants are perfect examples of how a plant should appear, so we want to preserve them.”
Staff also look for seeds from annuals that perform well or feature beneficial mutations. Over the years, staff can make selections for these odd traits and create a new strain unavailable in stores.
“We try and save those seeds for further research,” he said. “We also try to pick seeds from most plants in the garden because you never know when something could happen and you lose that plant.”
When Martin cannot source a seed from a partner organization, he sometimes goes on seed hunting trips to exotic locations around the world.
“We have plant hunting lists,” he said. “We’re always looking for new plant varieties to try in the gardens.”
Once the seeds are collected, Mercer staff and volunteers clean and dry the seeds before storing them in labeled envelopes and refrigerating them.
“We have a database that we enter the name, date, and where the seed was collected, and special notes such as germination requirements or special storing instructions,” said Martin.
Although fall is usually a good time to harvest seedlings, Martin notes that seeds ripen at different times, so seed harvesting is a year-round process.
“We always need volunteers to help with seed collecting, seed research, and seed cleaning,” he said. For more information about becoming a volunteer, contact Volunteer Coordinator Jamie Hartwell at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.