Prairie seed assortment harvested by The Nature Conservancy along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, for use in prairie restoration work.

10 Cheap Ways to Source Native Seeds & Plants

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

Money. One of the first words, after hardwork, that may come to mind when you see a gorgeous garden in your community. All those plants must have cost something besides just sweat, right? Maybe‒or maybe not.

LEAF intern Sharon Tam helps collect seeds on Santa Cruz Island, California. Tam is a student at Environmental Charter High School in south Los Angeles.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Erika Nortemann)

There are many ways to obtain free or inexpensive seeds, plants, bulbs, and rootstocks. We have compiled a variety of strategies to consider in your planting adventures. These recommendations are tried and true by Habitat Network staff and community so you can think outside your wallet‒if that works for you.

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Photo © Howard County Library System

1. Seed swap (exchange)

National Seed Swap Day is celebrated on the last Saturday in January. Though this date may have passed (depending on when you read this), there are always local opportunities for swapping seeds, or, if none exist, to plan and organize Seed Swaps (Exchanges) in your region.

Think tupperware party but the seeds were all free and we had a really great time talking about the seeds and so much more.

We have one Habitat Network user who organized one in her community this year and she said, “Think tupperware party but the seeds were all free and we had a really great time talking about the seeds and so much more.”

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Photo © PROOjai Valley Green Coalition

These events can be very informal. A small group of gardeners, for example, may gather at one person’s house and distribute seeds saved from their garden. Or, if you want to have a larger event, you can hang flyers and contact your local town hall or Cooperative Extension to provide a large public space for several people to bring envelopes, labeled and dated for distribution. The main objective is to share and receive local seeds.

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Photo © Howard County Library System

These events are really fun! All kinds of seeds can be exchanged. For those of you interested in natives and wildlife gardening we suggest advertising the swap as a place for only wild type native seeds to be exchanged. Swaps can also be organized for vegetable growers who want to share their open-pollinated, heirloom varieties. Or, you can leave the exchange entirely open and let people bring any and all seeds they have collected.

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Photo © Bureau of Land Management

How you structure and advertise the swap is entirely up to you and your community. This is one of the best ways to secure local seeds and begin to grow a community of people passionate about providing native habitat. Below we share several ideas for how to locate others in your community who might be interested.

Stephen Francis from New York at the Conservancy's Emiquon Preserve in Illinois.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Cristina Rutter)

2. Find a mentor, take a bucket and shovel

We are all in this together! One beautiful part of this work is that most habitat gardeners want to share–knowledge, ideas, inspiration, and PLANTS! Get to know others in your area who have beautiful native gardens. Stop by on a day when they are working outside. You may find yourself walking home with an armload of new plants or seeds.

In October 2014, 200 volunteers worked with The Nature Conservancy and partner Trees Atlanta to plant trees.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Aaron Coury)

Attend local plant talks or events, try to network, and ask people if they have plants or seeds they are willing to share. Some perennials will do better if you dig-up a portion of the root system, sometimes called a root ball or root clump–hence the need for bucket and shovel. While with other plants, seeds will do just fine. If you are new to gardening, root clumps may help you feel a bit more successful as you don’t have to do as much seed stratifying, germinating, or early weeding to protect seedlings and root clumps generally establish and grow quickly into robust plants. They can come with unintended “weed sharing,” too, so be cautious.

The Brightside Organization, The Nature Conservancy, UPS and Brown-Forman partnered to plant 150 trees along West Broadway from 20th Street to the end at Shawnee Park in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

3. Search Habitat Network and say hello

Another way to network with native plants enthusiasts, is to use Habitat Network. Recently we heard from a user in Washington who started their map and realized they had a neighbor who had already mapped their home. They walked over one day and said hello! This is one of the powerful features of our mapping tool–we can help you get to know others in your community who are interested in gardening for wildlife.

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Photo ©

To use the tool, simply go to your map (or location) and zoom-out. If there are other maps in your area, you will notice site markers. You can either intentionally swing by their homes on a day they might be in their gardens, or you can send them a quick message on Habitat Network. Let them know you are impressed with their gardens and would like to connect to share ideas or plants/seeds.

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Photo © Next Door.com

4. Neighborhood listservs or Facebook

Are there gardening listservs in your local area? If you find that not many people close to you are on the Habitat Network, try investigating listservs. NextDoor is a free, online tool that allows you to connect just to others in your neighborhood. Project Leader, Crain, tells us there are often people sharing plants through her NextDoor Community. Even if there is not a group specific to gardening, you could post on a general wall to let people know you are looking for native seeds, plants, bulbs, and rootstocks.

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Photo © Habitat Network on Facebook

Facebook is another place where you may find a community of wildlife gardeners. Habitat Network just created a Group called Pitch in a Patch for Pollinators. People are posting pictures of their gardens and engaging in conversations around various topics–including where to find native seeds and plants. Ecoregions are usually large, and you may connect with another person in your ecoregion who is willing to share seeds or plants.

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Photo © Dagmar Nelson

5. Cooperative Extension seed banks

In Ithaca, New York, our local Tompkins County Cooperative Extension provides free seeds to the community for a period of time each spring. Seeds are donated by other gardeners and garden centers so that people who may not otherwise have the means to find or purchase seeds, can have free access. Contact your local Cooperative Extension and ask if they host a community seed bank. You can find the link to your closest (usually county) Cooperative Extension office in the HN Local Resources tool–just put in your zip code and scroll through the results to find the link to your local office.

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Photo © Local Food Initiative

Keep in mind that not all available seeds are native. Picking appropriate seeds may take some time and sorting. Seeds may also be several years old–depending on how the collection is maintained. Seed germination may be poor if seeds are old or stored in less than ideal conditions.

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Photo © Dan Segal

6. Volunteer for a native garden nursery

“I volunteered for a native garden center in my area and everyone shared their plants. I got so many seeds and plants for free or very cheap. And lots of advice too.”

Megan Whatton, Habitat Network Project Manager

Small, ‘mom ’n’ pop’ nurseries, are often willing to put a few volunteers to work, especially during the busy season. These smaller nurseries are often more likely to have wild type native plants compared to larger box stores. Next time you visit, ask if you could volunteer for a few hours. Megan Whatton, Habitat Network Project Manager, says, “I volunteered for a native garden center in my area and everyone shared their plants. I got so many seeds and plants for free or very cheap. And lots of advice too.”

In October 2014, 200 volunteers worked with The Nature Conservancy and partner Trees Atlanta to plant trees.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Aaron Coury)

Though there is no guarantee you will receive free plants from your volunteer service, you are likely to learn a lot, connect to others with similar interests (and native gardens), and perhaps receive a discount on plants, seeds, plugs, and rootstock. Plants are so prolific there is a good chance spending time around a nursery will result in the growth of your plant collection.

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Photo © Dan Segal

7. Ask a nursery for plugs

Nurseries have many growth stages to achieve the beautiful quart-sized native plants that are sold. Earlier in the season, usually in greenhouses, plants are grown in large, dense plantings. Then, they are divided as “plugs” to be transplanted into larger quart-sized containers. These plugs often have dense root structures and several secondary leaves, so when they are transplanted into larger containers, they can establish and grow quickly.

More Plugs

Photo © Dan Segal

Instead of buying the more mature quart plants, see if the nursery will allow you to purchase plugs. They are smaller and usually less expensive, but will take a bit more nurturing if you direct-transplant them into your gardens. They, however, will generally do just as well with time and attention.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy

8. Roadsides and hedgerow harvesting

“Roadsides are one of the best places to collect seed all over the U.S.. They occupy a sort of no-man’s land outside fences and often harbor an abundance of good plants. In my area, for example, my road has nice stands of dozens of easy to grow native plants. The cornfields around us have hedgerows, some of which border my own property, that are also great at harboring native species.”

One Habitat Network user told us,“Roadsides are one of the best places to collect seed all over the U.S.. They occupy a sort of no-man’s land outside fences and often harbor an abundance of good plants. In my area, for example, my road has nice stands of dozens of easy to grow native plants. The cornfields around us have hedgerows, some of which border my own property, that are also great at harboring native species.” If the hedgerow is owned by a local farmer or neighbor, we encourage you to ask permission before removing seeds.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy

While we support the collection of a few handful of seeds in these locations, we do not recommend digging up entire plants. The seeds from wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs are sufficient for the needs of the average gardener. Removing an entire plant is much more intrusive and could disrupt the local ecosystem.

LEAF interns at the Conservancy's Emiquon Preserve in Illinois.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Cristina Rutter)

With seed collecting, think of yourself as a deer, gently grazing on a native shrub. Don’t take more than you can “chew” and move along at a steady pace so all the seeds are not eliminated in one area. Most wildflowers and grasses produce thousands of seeds and their successful germination the following season is unlikely to be negatively impacted by your ‘foraging.’ Seed collecting is best done in the fall in many parts of N. America, but sometimes there are still seeds available in the spring in those locations. In other places, like California, you are likely to have luck collecting at the start of the dry season (summer).

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Photo © aecole2010

The benefit of collecting seeds in these wild spaces is that the plants have a high degree of genetic diversity, as they are often grown in larger patches where cross pollination occurs. If you have your eye on a local, state, or federal park, these places are often off-limits to the removal of any plant material. If removal is permitted, you generally need a permit to collect seeds or plants. These permits can be costly and the plants you find there may be just as readily available along a roadside or hedgerow.

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New York Botanical Garden

Photo © tchamber236

9. Visit local botanical gardens in the fall

Botanical Gardens may have a native plant section and could be another location you might want to visit for seed collecting. Depending on the region, some of these gardens are open seasonally. The late fall is the best time for seed collection. Perhaps stop by before the facility closes and ask if you would be permitted to collect a few seeds from the dead heads. While some facilities may have their own seed-collection policy, many will permit the removal of some seeds to visitors that ask.

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A volunteer collects sycamore seeds for planting at restoration sites located along the Sacramento River, CA.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Mary Ann Griggs)

10. Save your seeds & share

Finally, consider becoming a seed saver and sharer. Collecting seeds is relatively easy. The storage can be tricky, but a well-ventilated room with plastic or glass containers that are well-labeled will do the trick.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Katherine Blackmore)

Before putting seeds in a container, make sure they are completely dry. You can do this by leaving them on the plants until the first series of cold, dry days of the year. Or, harvest and dry them manually in a south-facing window. If they are placed in containers before they are dry, they will mold.

Harvested prairie seed in the storage barn.  The Nature Conservancy's  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

Harvested prairie seed in the storage barn. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

The image above is of a large-scale meadow seed-saving project. Harvesters allowed the seed heads to dry in the fields. Then, seeds, or whole flower heads from individual plants, were collected into different containers. Later, the plants with flower heads can be winnowed to separate the seeds from the chaff, or flower material. Once you are left with only seeds, they can then be stored in separate containers for quickly creating meadow mixes or making species-specific seed packs easily available.

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Photo © jerry dohnal

In addition to the common and scientific name on the label, it is wise to include the date the seeds were collected. Many seeds will stay viable for several seasons, but some will have a lower germination rate as they age. As you build-up your collection consider hosting a Seed Swap (Exchange) and keep ‘paying forward’ the gift of gardening on the cheap. It is a great way to ensure your seed collection stays young enough to be viable and opportunities for successful germination are not missed.

In Summary…

10 Cheap Ways to Source Native Seeds & Plants

1. Seed swap (exchange)
2. Find a mentor
3. Search Habitat Network
4. Neighborhood listservs or Facebook
5. Cooperative extension seed banks
6. Volunteer for a native garden nursery
7. Ask nursery for plugs
8. Roadsides and hedgerow harvesting
9. Visit local botanical gardens in the fall
10. Save your seeds & share

Have other creative ideas? Share them and we’ll add them to the article: help@habitat.network

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