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Sharing seeds without stealing

Meleah Maynard

Meleah Maynard

November 16, 2012

A few readers have emailed lately asking if I think it’s okay to just take a few seeds from plants in people’s gardens, or if I think they should ask first. It’s a good question, and one every gardener grapples with, I imagine. I admit that I have gathered a few seeds here and there from other people’s gardens. I didn’t go up into their yards or anything. But if a plant I liked was in a boulevard garden, or poking out of a fence or over a wall, I’d take a few seeds if it seemed like there were a lot to go around. I didn’t think much about this, probably because I wouldn’t mind if people took seeds from my gardens, at least not the ones that are accessible from the sidewalk.

But then the issue came up on our Master Gardener listserv, and I got those emails I mentioned from readers, and I realized that a lot of people consider taking seeds from other people’s plants a horrible thing to do. “It’s stealing,” one gardener wrote on our listserv. And many others agreed. Of course I see their point. And even though we stealers only take a few seeds, what if everyone who came along did that? What if the plant was special, maybe an heirloom grown by the gardener’s grandma and each year’s seeds were a precious treasure to be shared with family members?

I’ve thought about all of these things and decided that I won’t ever take seeds without asking again. But this doesn’t change the fact that I would be happy to share seeds from my own gardens, and I’m fine with people taking them without asking as long as you don’t venture into the yard and frighten our scared-of-everything dog, Lily. This whole thing has got me thinking about ways to share. I could put up a sign on the boulevard next season saying “Please feel free to take seeds from the boulevard gardens!” We live on a corner lot, so there are a lot of plants to choose from out there.

But I’m not sure how to let people know they’re welcome to seeds from plants inside the fence, too. We just need to know you’re coming so we can put Lily in the house. If you live around here, and you’re reading this, just email or call and we’ll tell you to come on over. For passersby, though, I obviously need a better system. I’m wondering if there’s a good a way to join up with other gardeners in the area to start a Little Free Seed Bank, modeled after the Little Free Library boxes that are popping up all over the place. If you haven’t seen these, homeowners, businesses, anyone who wants to, really, can give money to the program and get their own birdhouse-like box to stock with books that people can take and read for free. Take a book, leave a book, that’s the idea, and from what I can tell, it’s working beautifully.

Maybe there’s a way to do something like this with seeds, too. I threw this idea out to readers of my Everyday Gardener column in our local paper, The Southwest Journal, and several people emailed to say they’d be interested in working with me on trying to get a seed sharing plan off the ground next year. If you’re a local reader and you’re interested, too, please email and let me know. If you’re not local, but you like the idea and would like to know what we dream up, just email and I’ll keep in touch.

And, if you have a minute, I would also love to know what you think about sharing seeds in general. Would you be happy to share seeds from your garden with others? Would you want people to ask before they took seeds? Do you think it’s stealing to take a few seeds from people’s gardens without asking?

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11 years ago

What a fantastic idea! I, personally, think that seed sharing is a great idea. If your plant/tree is hanging out over the sidewalk its on public ground and the seed can be taken with impunity. Go talk to your local authorities…if you are a neighbour and your neighbours branches overhang your property you can cut them (or request that they get them removed) so if branches overhang the road… anyway… a great idea and one that will be no doubt taken up most gratefully :). Have you thought about seedy penpals? I am trying to start it here in Australia following a model that I found on a Dutch website that appears to be working amazingly well. The seed box is a fantastic idea! Might have to pinch it to start it off here in Tasmania. Thanks for the great idea and for posing the question as to the stealing. I think that gardeners (on the whole) are most generous about sharing their plant material so long as the plant isn’t damaged or stripped bare by greedy people. If you are not willing to share…why are you gardening in the first place?

Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

I went to an open garden once where I saw an unusual form of apricot-coloured nasturtium. I picked 3 seeds up off the ground. The garden owner came storming out of the house and accused me of stealing them. I was mortified because I’d never thought of it like that. She said I could have them if I bought them and she’d leave them at the gate for me. I dutifully gave $2 for the 3 seeds and planted them some time later, still feeling embarrassed and guilty about it. They all flowered yellow so I suspect she switched the seeds anyway. Maybe that was karma!
You can buy quite a lot of seeds on ebay but I like the idea of sharing and swapping better.

Tammy Schmitt
11 years ago

She accused you of stealing? That is so bizarre! If she enjoys birdsong from a bird in a neighbors tree, is she stealing, too? Seeds on the ground are fair game.

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Yes, think people who kick up a fuss about sharing seeds spread bad garden karma. It comes out in their garden eventually as disease, probably.
I love it when someone likes a bush or flower I am growing so much that they want a seed or a piece …whether I know them or not. As long as they are respectful of the mother plant.
As you say, seeds on the ground are for the taking ….. which reminds me I should put my poinciana seed pods in a box at the gate.

11 years ago

I enjoyed your post. An interesting topic and I guess like most things in life, a subject on which there are so many varied opinions! I can’t imagine anyone justifying in their own minds how taking seeds off the ground is stealing, especially on a footpath or sidewalk. Crazy! You would think that in general most gardeners are more than happy to share and spread the joy of plants.

Peta Trahar
11 years ago

Hmm this is an interesting post. My mother loved to walk from her house in West Hobart merrily collecting seed from plants hanging over the neighbourhood fences. She’d often ring me and say for example, “Theres’ a beautiful single Hollyhock at no. 3, I’ll collect the seed when it’s ripe.” Her seeds arrived regularly in the post and now thrive as mature specimens in my garden. Pink perennial pea,
white Dierama, perennial poppies……….I’m looking forward to welcoming Rod and Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds, Cape Town as speakers at the 13/14 April Collectors’ Plant Fair at Clarendon, NSW. Rod and Rachel spend months in the African wilds seed collecting and have a strong international following. How does this fit into the seed story?

11 years ago

Loved your blog and I think it is fine to take some seeds, if they are outside the fence, especially if there are lots of them. If there aren’t many, then only take 1 or 2. I don’t think people should come inside your fence and take them without knocking and asking first. That is being a bit too cheeky….

Also nicking seeds or a cutting along the street, is fun, it is sort of pushing the boundaries of the law, but not doing anything really bad…. but being slightly a rebel. I think we all like to do that a bit…..

10 years ago
Reply to  Sandi

Agree Sandi, I’m with you on that. My garden would be nothing without all the freebie seeds and cuttings I have accumulated since we started our garden 3 yrs ago. I recenty stayed at a motel where they had some beautiful plants. I asked the owner if I could take cuttings and she was thrilled and offered me scissors, bags etc to collect them.
I would never enter anyone’s garden, however do admit to putting my hand through the fence of a public school that had the biggest Hydrangea blooms I had ever seen. The cutting survived and is now a beautiful little shrub. Memories, that’s what my garden is made of!