You have to be quick if you want to score a Chinese cabbage seedling, a bronze fennel or, really, anything else at the annual Seed Savers-KC plant, seed and bulb exchange. The trays of tiny seedlings and rooted cuttings that fill the tables at the onset of the annual garden swap meet are basically cleaned out in an hour.
Unless some new people arrive with more plants to trade, that is.
That’s the beauty of the exchange, said Dayna McDaniel, co-founder of the local Seed Savers. Gardeners of all skill levels come from around the metro area to try new plants without a big cash investment. All they need to do is contribute some greenery of their own to the mix.
“I’m a big believer in the good in people,” McDaniel said. “People usually take about what they bring in. But we never turn anyone away.”
“Some don’t come with anything, but then they come the next year with all kinds of plants because they’ve learned the skills and they want to share,” she said.
The exchange, held Saturday at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center in Kansas City, was the eighth annual meet for the local seed savers group. Besides the heirloom tomatoes, yarrow, baby cacti and the like, there was sourdough starter and kombucha, a fermented tea, to take. Participants could also bring seeds to donate to the seed library, which had its own separate swap event in January.
Any leftover plants would be donated to local community gardens, she said.
The Missouri Department of Conservation also piggybacked on the plant exchange by offering some native plants and instruction on how to make seed balls.
The plant exchange got its start as an informal group meeting at the City Market and eventually moved to the Discover Center for its more convenient parking, McDaniel said. About two and a half years ago the group became Seed Savers-KC and now has an avid Facebook following, she said.
The seed exchange has become popular enough that the group started the seed library in January and had an event that drew 275 people, she said. That seed library is one of two new ones in the Kansas City area. The Irene Ruiz branch of the Kansas City Public Library opened its own seed library on Saturday.
“People are really engaged,” she said. “They want to grow organic seeds and plants that are non-GMO (genetically modified). A lot of people in the community are wanting to learn these skills.”
Count Carolyn Pooler was one of them. Saturday was Pooler’s first trip to the swap meet. She said reading about genetically modified food and its lack of labeling inspired her to start gardening in earnest at her home near Kansas City International airport.
“The main thing for me is we’ve got to get back to having real food,” she said. “I’ve been reading about all the GMOs and I don’t want my family eating that crap.”
The GMO issue isn’t the only reason people showed up, though. Saving money, trying new plants and the chance to socialize also ranked high on the list for many swappers.
“It’s a good way to try things if you have a budget,” said Sherita Williams of Kansas City, who described herself as a novice gardener. “I appreciate the chance to talk to people who grew them. You can hear how excited they are about it,” she said.
Bridget Moss, also of Kansas City, has been coming to the exchange for three or four years. Since Moss starts her own seeds, she often ends up with too many plants, she said. “This is a good way to get rid of the things you don’t want and take home the things you do.”
Cynthia and Alonzo Call of Kansas City, Kan., agreed. They are regulars at the exchange. “It’s good to meet other like-minded people,” said Cynthia. “You can break into gardening without going into a big box store and thinking, ‘What do I buy and is it going to die?’”
Even without the socializing, the swap is worth the trip to Kansas City for the savings alone, said Denise Decker of North Kansas City. “Oh heck, yeah. Where else can you get one or two perennials for free?” Perennials, which come up each year without reseeding, are generally more expensive than plants with a lifespan of only one or two years.
Jill Pettis of Merriam has made the drive to the event the past four years, mostly for the tomatoes, she said. She has a small yard of raised beds and grows mostly tomatoes, peppers and herbs. She brought seeds Saturday, but in the past she’s taken perennials and kombucha.
Chuck Digby of Prairie Village values the event for the variety of plants available. Digby, a long-time gardener who was involved at the beginning of the national seed savers exchange now based in Decorah, Iowa, said the types of plants available are less common than what’s typically available in stores. “You get different types of flavor and color. It’s not what you usually get at the hardware store.”
For others at the exchange, gardening is a big part of the homesteader lifestyle. Aaron Buller, Debbie Monaco and their son, Magnus, 3, dropped off some surprise lilies and iris and shopped for edibles. The Kansas City family is working at becoming urban homesteaders in their home a few blocks away from the Discovery Center. They make their own bread and Aaron taught Debbie how to can food. The group and the Facebook page has been an important resource, they said.
Ditto Loren Martin and Linton Beckum. The couple, who live in Overland Park’s old town, were first-time visitors to the swap meet Saturday. Loren, who studies plant medicine in Lawrence, was on the lookout for jewelweed, which she said can combat the reaction to poison ivy.
“We’re looking for interesting plants to grow that are native,” she said. “We don’t grow much in my yard right now because a lot of weeds are growing in my yard, actually,” she said, but added that many of them can be useful home remedies.
Eventually, the couple has plans for their home, which sits on land that was formerly part of a dairy farm. “It’s our dream to have a homestead,” Loren said.