Making the Most of Seed Distributions

Many gardening societies offer an annual distribution of seeds for their members, and these are probably the best source of specialist and unusual seeds at ludicrously low prices. As each society has a slightly different way of organising their Seed Distribution, and the dates for sending in seeds or applications, the number of packets members can apply for, and the cost of seeds varies, you need to check the exact rules for the society you're interested in. The Royal Horticultural Society's Links Page has a good list of societies in the UK and several other countries.

There are a few things you can do to maximise your chances of getting the seeds you really want from a Seed Exchange:


Send seeds in:

Most societies give you more seeds if you've sent seeds in, so the first rule is send seeds in. The type of seed they want varies, but they all need them to be carefully cleaned and correctly labelled. We've all received seed from society distributions that was only empty seed cases, or wasn't what the label said, so try and make sure yours at least are accurate.

Remember that many species in the Daisy Family (Asteraceae), or Clematis, sometimes produce just the fluff without good seed on the end of it. Make certain that what you send in is propery cleaned, healthy seed.

If your seeds are from a named hybrid, label them as, for example, 'Geranium pratense ex Mrs. Kendall Clarke'. Seeds of hybrids generally don't produce plants the same as the parent plant, but some might be the same, so people reading that would know they stood a chance of getting something like 'Mrs. Kendall Clarke' from some of the seeds at least. If you don't know the right name, don't send the seeds in. You can use them for your own personal exchanges where you can give the person on the other end more information about your particular plant.

Send your seed in, packed and labelled as instructed, by the closing date - usually some time in October or November.

Know what you want:

For most societies, it's 'first come, first served', so you need to get your application form back as soon as possible. To minimise the time it takes you to make your selection and return the form know what you want. Keep an on-going list throughout the year of plants you like the look of or would like to try. It's easier on a computer, as you can then update it and keep it in alphabetical order.

Be ready to return your form:

Be able to return your form immediately without having to go out and buy the basics. Have a supply of envelopes, labels and postage stamps ready.


Choose your seeds:

Naturally, the first thing you do is open the envelope and scan the list, finding several things that catch your eye immediately. But don't write anything on the form at this stage. If you do, as soon as you've filled in the form, you'll see lots of other good things you would have put down but didn't notice in your initial excitement. It pays to be methodical.

Sit down and read the instructions carefully.

Read through the list of seeds, and mark anything that takes your fancy. I use a fluorescent highlighter. Check the seedlist against your Wish List. Mark anything that's on your list of Wants. Now work through the seedlist, assessing how much you want the things you've marked (I use a computer spreadsheet, giving them 1, 2 or 3 marks), deleting the less worthy until the number of choices on your final list is the same as your allocation of seeds.

Choose your substitutes:

If you had a lot of seeds marked during the earlier process, your Substitutes will be those you dropped last from the list.

Complete your application form, in the order of your choice or in numerical order, in accordance with the instructions. If your particular Society gives you substitutes in the order you list them, make sure the first two or three you list are also things you'd really like.

Surplus Distributions:

Most Societies allow you to apply for seed left over after the Main Distribution. Different Societies have different ways of distributing this seed.

Random Selection ~ These are the seeds left over after the main Distribution, sent out on a completely random basis. Sometimes, these random selections contain rare seeds - some people don't like to apply for seeds they don't know, so you can acquire some rare plants this way.

Choose a genus ~ You may be able to choose a particular genus and your seeds will be chosen from whatever is still left in that genus. A good way to build up a collection, especially as some of them may be unknown, rare and desirable.

Choose by number ~ Sometimes, you may be able to choose the seeds you'd like from those left over, in the same way as you indicated your choice for the Main Distribution.


If it's first come, first served, the sooner you send your application form back, the better chance you have of getting your First Choices. Sending it back the same day is not too soon. If the society operates a completely random system, though, there's not much point in rushing, and you can spend more time looking up things you don't know, making sure you get the form in before the closing date.

You stand a better chance of getting seed which isn't the type most people are looking for from that exchange. You're more likely to get, say, Acacia seeds from an alpine society where most members are looking for alpines than from a society which usually caters for people looking for tropical seeds.

The cost of these seeds is minimal - around 20p a packet so it's an ideal opportunity to get seeds that would often cost 3 or more from a commercial seed house.

The number of seeds in a packet is small because they're specialist seeds, in short supply.

Keep the Seedlist. Most societies use only the numbers on the packets of seed, so you need to refer to the list to identify them. The numbers are different every year, so an old list won't do. Write the name on the seed packet as soon as you get your seeds.


You must be a MEMBER of a Society to take part in its Seed Distribution so if you want the seeds, JOIN! Contact addresses, websites and e-mails are on the links.

READ THE INSTRUCTIONS for sending in seed, and follow the instructions.
READ THE INSTRUCTIONS for getting the seedlist, and follow the instructions.
READ THE INSTRUCTIONS for filling in the application and follow the instructions.

LABEL the seeds you send in with the correct botanical name of the seeds and your name, or you may not get the extra allocation for Seed Donors

Before posting your application form, CHECK you've filled it in correctly, and are enclosing labels, payment or stamps as required

If you don't fill in the form correctly, it will be put aside and dealt with LAST - and then you won't get anything you want!

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