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Faye's crown in early September.

Featured Article

Seeds for Thought

Editor Stephen Neilson provides insights on getting a garden green and growing with locally traded seeds.

Article by Stephen Neilson

Photography by Stephen Neilson

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

When the calendar flips to April we know Spring is on the way. That’s the time for local gardeners to prepare for the growing season. As someone who considers a garden to be good for the soul, I’m also happy knowing that the time I put into it is my own way to eat more local. 

Whether it’s a garden plot brimming with color or a big bowl of leafy greens on the kitchen table, if it’s from my own garden I know I’m doing my part to live life a little more sustainably.

Last year I discovered something quite remarkable available to home gardeners right here in Lake County; a swap which involves trading of seeds from vegetables, flowers and fruit grown locally by gardeners like me.

In February, a surge of seed-seeking souls converged on the 4th Annual Seed Expo, sponsored by the Round Lake Area (RLA) Garden Club. From humble beginnings the expo has grown to be a collaboration involving Master Gardeners, various area gardening and land preservation organizations, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County and the University of Illinois Extension. This year the free seed swap had more than 10,000 packets of seeds available to attendees. Expert advice and resources were shared, and enthusiastic gardeners of all levels of green-thumbness made selections from thousands of lovingly assembled seed packets. 

Also getting into the act are Fremont Public Library and the Round Lake Area Library. In Round Lake, Library Trustee Carolina Schottland said: “The RLA Garden Club resulted from a series of community and stakeholder meetings where we realized we could grow our ‘Library of Things’ to include more than just books.” 

Jumpstarting the Seed Expo was a donation from the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange ( “They give away a fabulous seed saving book, some seed saving equipment, and about 40 packets of seeds, to help generate seed swaps, seed libraries and seed saving across the nation,” Schottland recalled. “After seeing this I wanted as many people as possible to have access. Our first Seed Expo had about 75 attendees and we were thrilled.”

In year two the library’s executive director, Jim DiDonato upcycled old card catalogues to store donated packets. “Our second Seed Expo doubled the first year’s attendance, and we knew we’d need a much bigger space moving forward. Our new site, the Round Lake Beach Cultural and Civic Center, allows us to dream big. The 2020 Seed Expo involved 10 community partners and drew about 350 people.”

For home gardeners seeking to grow plants directly from seed Schottland offered sound advice: “You have to plan ahead. Certain plants have to be started inside many weeks before frost dates and can only be placed outside when temperatures are in a certain range. These seedlings (started inside) need attention regarding light, water and nutrients.  When moving them outside, you need to acclimate them. At first this can seem overwhelming, so it’s not a bad idea to start a garden with garden-center plants, which are generally healthy and acclimated. 

“The advantages, however, of starting from seeds, especially when getting them for free, is you get way more bang for your buck,” Schottland said. “You often have access to more varieties of plants. It’s also exciting as there are many things you can start indoors as early as February, so it makes spring seem right around the corner. My recommendation is to reach out to your local Extension office for information; you can search for Lake County Extension Master Gardener information on-line and even find it on Facebook. Additionally, if you’re uncertain about keeping something alive inside, just start with seeds that you can direct sow, meaning you put the seed directly in the garden and watch it grow. This works with many quick-growing, cool-loving plants, such as radishes, peas, arugula, beets and spinach. You can also direct sow warmth-loving plants like corn and beans. Then, supplement them with plants from a garden center, such as tomatoes and melons.” 

Personally, taking advantage of the Seed Expo’s kickstart last year, I was thrilled to grow and harvest hundreds of various peppers, tomatoes, squash, greens, and herbs in containers. We also had several varieties of flowers new to my family. I saved their seeds to get a free-and-fast running start on this year’s garden. We also committed to harvest seeds to share with the seed-saving community.

Notably, one of the seed packets we got from the expo sprouted like Jack’s beanstalk: it was a giant sunflower which grew to more than 13-feet tall with 40 distinct blossoms on a single stem. Initially dubbed “King Kong,” after seeing how beautifully it bloomed, we renamed it “Faye” and she served as our garden centerpiece well into October. 

Although donating seeds back to the RLA Seed Library isn’t required, it’s encouraged, as an act of “paying it forward.” If you attend next year’s Seed Swap, be sure to check the flower-seed section, where you may find (if you come early) a few seed envelopes labeled “Daughters of Faye…” and to quote Paul Harvey, “Now, you know the rest of the story.” 


You’re Never Too Young to Plant Good Seeds

According to Regina Schauer of the Wauconda Library, “We help cultivate a learner, plant a seed, nurture the sprouts, and have our kids take home the beginning of a garden.”She explained how she and a colleague, Kelly Marsch, launched Little Sprouts”a program for 4-and-5 year olds. Meeting for three weekly one-hour sessions, Little Sprouts combined a fun and educational story time with children planting their own seeds (tomatoes, peas, and zinnias) in pots, decorating plant stakes and water cans, seeing their seeds sprout and then taking their plants home at the end of the program to be planted in their own gardens. “The kids enjoy seeing their own plants transform, and love taking something substantial home at the end,” Schauer said.

  • Faye's crown in early September.
  • Organic Rosso Sicilian tomatoes from Seed Savers Exchange.
  • Lots of great seeds and skilled advice for gardeners.
  • 2020 Seed Expo.
  • RLA Library Seed Library.
  • "Faye", with first bloom (of 40 to come) opening; with Lisa Neilson.
  • Chitelpin peppers from seed.
  • Teddy Bear Sunflower (homegrown from seed).
  • Hot to trot!