Seed Swapping to Avoid Neonicotinoid Pesticides

Sharing Seeds with Others to Avoid  Neonicotinoid Pesticides

Tables full of seeds at the Washington DC seed swap, held at Brookside Gardens.

Tables full of seeds at the Washington DC seed swap, held at Brookside Gardens.


Although I have always known that the plants I bought from nurseries were likely to be treated with some kind of chemical, I used to think that as long as I kept my garden in an organic way and took car of the plants without pesticides once I got them home it would all be okay.

This year, however, I began work on a book about backyard beekeepers and the health of honey bees here in the Mid-Atlantic part of the US, and I became aware of just how wrong my assumption could be.

Sadly, a study done this summer found that many of the commercial growers that sell their plants via wholesale to nurseries are treating their plants with neonicotinoid pesticides – those systemic chemicals that can turn any plant deadly to insects that suck on the plants’ stems, or eat the plants’ leaves.  There is scientific evidence that the floral resources – the nectar and the pollen of the treated plants – also become toxic to bees and other pollinators.  (To learn more of this grim news or to see the science see: What’s Killing the Bees? ).

This has left in me in a terrible conundrum as a wildlife gardener who lives on a somewhat tight budget.

I’d like to support growers who sell certified organic plants, but certification is – I have been told – a very difficult and expensive process for a grower to complete in the US.  This means that the plants may be more expensive, but also they are darned hard to find.  There simply aren’t a lot of growers out there who are selling the plants I like to buy for my garden who will tell me they are organic! And now that I know that even seeds treated with neonics and plants grown in soil that has been previously treated should be avoided as much as possible, I am trying to be extra careful.  I do not want to be encouraging wildlife to come for a feast in my garden if I’m actually enticing them to a toxic meal.

So this year I began trading plants with fellow growers in a huge way.  I also began saving seed to share and trade with others.  This helps to offset the cost of buying from organic growers and will also, I hope, enable me to find some of the plants that I want while hopefully avoiding neonics.

Saturday I attended my first-ever see swap, organized by Kathy Jentz, editor Washington Gardener magazine, which was held at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.  Kathy even got lots of local garden-related businesses to donate prizes and fill our goody bags!  It was great!

Honestly, I had always stayed away from such events in the past because I really thought they were all about veggie gardening.   Even though I really enjoy growing veggies I have never had veggie seeds to swap.  Also, I really don’t start thinking about what I am going to grow in my edible garden until very late in the winter… so I never really was ready to think about seed swaps that took place in January.

This year, I nervously packaged up some of my Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to give out.   Why was I nervous?  Well, a few days before the swap I attended a lecture where the speaker, who was giving a talk about butterfly life cycles, mentioned that although she knew the native plant was great for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly, she did not think it was a good garden plant.   Too weedy, she said. Too hard to control.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

I disagreed.  There are fewer and fewer places in agricultural areas where milkweed of any sort is allowed to grow now, due to the heavy use of herbicides used to maximize growing potential in industrial style farm set-ups.  Tidy can be nice.  But a world that is too tidy for monarchs and their milkweed is not something I look forward to or want to encourage.

Its true that this is not a plant for those obsessed with tidy outdoor spaces.  But its great for those obsessed with butterflies! Honestly, I’ve been growing it for two decades and I do not have  a problem with it taking over.  It is really pretty easy to control compared to other aggressive plants.  It smells GREAT, and deer usually avoid it because the sap is so super-sticky.  And it is wonderful to see the monarchs use it so readily during their migration to Mexico in the fall.

So, for the seed exchange I wrote up a little blurb warning those who took the seed that they’d need to give this kind of milkweed room to spread – either in a fake urban meadow like the one I have in my yard or maybe in back of some unused place near a garage or at the back of a property.

On Saturday, I was soooo happy when a woman stood up during the seed swap question and answer session and thanked “the person who brought the milkweed.”  She was, she told the crowd, hoping more people would plant some milkweed because the monarchs need it so very badly these days.  A kindred spirit!  And I did notice my seeds went pretty quickly.  (Take that, garden speaker who dissed the milkweed!  Hah!)

Milkweed seeds in the winter garden are gorgeous.

Milkweed seeds in the winter garden are gorgeous.

I am definitely hooked on the idea of a seed exchange.  Turns out there was a whole table of seeds people had brought from native plants.  One guy even brought Paw Paw seeds which were snapped up almost immediately by other members of the crowd.  There were also loads of great annual and perennial seeds.  Who could turn down free veggie seeds in those goody bags?

And it only cost $10.00 to get into the event.  A real bargain and a great way to spend the day meeting other gardeners on a cold day when our yards area all still full of snow!

9 Thoughts on “Seed Swapping to Avoid Neonicotinoid Pesticides

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  5. Thank you for this write up. I attended the swap, and it was great fun. Lots of interesting information, seeds,and camaraderie.

  6. Green Bean on January 28, 2014 at 12:17 am said:

    What a great article! I’d love to attend a swap like this one and would definitely have called dibs on the milkweed.

  7. I collected milkweed seeds from plants in the fall, but I’m not sure how to use them. Should I plant them inside first and then transplant them outside? If so, when should I start? Or do they go right in the ground once there is no danger of frost?

    I live in the Silver Spring area and we want to make a butterfly garden this spring. Thanks!

    • Alison on January 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm said:

      Milkweed is incredibly easy to grow from seed. The trick is not in the germination, but in the benign neglect. It won’t sprout until May — at the earliest. But between now and then you don’t want to accidentally dig it up or disturb it. So, find a spot in your garden that you want to get it started. Put down the seeds. Step on them, mush them in the dirt, scratch them in, whatever. And yes, you can do this now while the ground is really cold. Then mark where you plant the seeds and becareful NOT to touch that area until the milkweed sprouts in May. I sometimes mark out areas with milkweed seeds or plants by cutting off about an inch of an old plastic garden pot and making a ring around the planted area, mark it with garden marker “milkweed” — this helps me remember NOT to weed there and disrupt my baby milkweed sprouts. Other than that, you need not do anything.

      If you are not sure this method will work for you, you can hedge your bets by following the very very detailed and multi step directions available on the Monarch Watch site… but really it is not that hard to get milkweed to grow. Mine volunteered on its own in my garden many years ago! Good luck! May the monarchs be with you!

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