Starting a garden from seed can be an expensive proposition if you're ordering online and buying from seed catalogs. A handful of harder-to-find heirloom seeds can cost as much as a frou-frou cup of coffee. Factor in shipping charges and you'll be wondering how starting a garden is supposed to save you money.

Fortunately, experienced gardeners can be some of the most generous people — especially where seeds are concerned — and they are often willing to part with seeds to help a new gardener.

Below are some tips on places you can go online and in real life to get your green thumbs on free garden seeds.

Gardening forums

When I started my first real outdoor garden, I was lucky enough to have been part of an online forum filled with gardeners who where as generous with their knowledge as they were with the seeds from their gardens. The popularity of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest has depressed participation in online forums, but they're still the place to go to meet serious seed savers and swappers. There are many gardening websites with active communities and seed swapping forums that are worth checking out.

Sometimes gardeners unload excess seeds on newbies for what is known as Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes offers. A SASE seed offer means you will have to send the gardener an envelope with your name and address and stamps that cover the cost of postage of the seeds they are sending you. How many seeds you get will depend on the gardener, but they’re usually more seeds than you could buy for the cost of two postage stamps. GardenWeb is a good place to get started, but also search for some smaller forums where you won’t get lost in the crowd.

Seed swaps

Late winter and early spring is the time of year when gardeners get together and swap seeds saved from their garden the previous year. Gardeners bring in their own saved seeds, and sometimes extra seeds they've purchased, and exchange them at these swaps for seeds they are interested in growing. Usually, to participate in a seed swap you have to take seeds to exchange, but some seed swaps may be set up so that new gardeners who don’t have seeds can take some home with them too. Do a Google search for seed swaps in your community and attend as many as possible to get to know the gardeners in your area.

Seed libraries

Seed libraries have been rising in popularity the past couple of years. They can be a standalone project, or they can be connected to the library in your municipality. They work on an honor system; you are allowed to take seeds for free with the understanding that you will return seeds at the end of the season. is a recently formed social network of seed savers and seed librarians. There you’ll find seed libraries across the country and information about starting one in your community.

Ask a gardener for free seeds

Maybe you're the kind of person who does not feel comfortable asking strangers for something free. But chances are that you already have a friend who is a gardener, someone you can ask for seeds. It might be a neighbor, family member or even a coworker, and they probably have a seed stash of their own that they will happily dip into to help a new gardener get started.

Save your own seeds

Remember the saying "beggars can't be choosers" when you're asking for free seeds. Do not turn your nose up at any seed that is offered for free that you can actually put to use in your garden. Even if it isn’t something you particularly care for, think of seeds as a currency. Grow it in your garden, enjoy the blooms, or eat the fruit, and then save the seeds. By saving these “unwanted” seeds you will build up your own seed bank. These seeds can be your entrance into a seed swap at the end of the season, they can be used to barter for seeds you do want, and you can use them to make deposits in the seed libraries and seed banks that provided you seeds when you had none. Visit the “Engage & Grow” tab of the website for helpful information on seed saving.

Ramon is the original urban garden blogging male espousing a DIY philosophy to gardening and garden projects. Better known online as MrBrownThumb, he’s been demystifying gardening secrets for average gardeners online since 2005. Besides writing the popular MrBrownThumb garden blog he’s co-founder of @SeedChat on Twitter, the creative director of One Seed Chicago, and founder of the Chicago Seed Library.

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