UT-Austin Campus Environmental Center opens seed swap in UT Tower

Grace Robertson

The UT Tower is one of the oldest and most ornate buildings on campus, with marble floors, historical artifacts and “Phantom of the Opera” style chandeliers. But there’s new life in this storied building, tucked away in a quiet nook on the first floor: the seed swap.

“The idea of the seed swap is, you take seeds, you grow your plants, you harvest your seeds, and you give them back,” biology junior Elena Adams said.

The seed swap project began last fall, when the Campus Environmental Center’s subgroup Half-Pint Prairie offered to mail seeds to people anywhere in the U.S. who requested them through a Google form.

“We said, ‘Here are the seeds we have. Give us your address, and we will mail you the seeds you asked for for free,” said Jack Rouse, an accounting and English senior. “It was a lot of labor and a lot of time, and it was never something that we thought was going to be sustainable so we were always looking for a physical location.”

This semester, Half-Pint Prairie is collaborating with another subgroup called Microfarm to set up a table next to the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, UT’s biodiversity center in the Tower, to hand out seeds, pots and other gardening materials.

The collaborative initiative started after Microfarm project co-leader Sally Jung started collecting the seeds of ripe crops over the summer and decided to start the seed-focused project.

“Seeds are a really important part … of our agricultural system, (so) I thought that it’d be great if we could have some kind of seed thing at UT (where) people could get more educated about seeds,” said Jung, an environmental science and geography senior.

Participants want to encourage students to learn how to grow their own plants from the sprout, even in atypical gardening spaces, such as a dorm or apartment.

The seed swap isn’t just for UT students — project leaders want faculty, staff and local Austinites to be able to give and take seeds, Rouse said.

“(We had) someone from Ohio email us asking for seeds,” Rouse said. “How did she even hear about this?”

Rouse said he thinks the community of plant enthusiasts in Austin will learn from each other over the course of the project.

“There are not very many spaces that really unite people and erase boundaries the way something like this does,” Rouse said. “Realistically, a lot of the people that use this are going to be staff and faculty … we’ve got to learn to embrace that and look to them as people that can help.”

Half-Pint Prairie and Microfarm are hosting events this spring to kick off the seed swap’s official launch, including giving out free seeds at UT Farm Stand on April 14 and a virtual planting event at the end of the month.

“We’re working to open the space up and publish some informative materials,” said Nikki Hammond, a Microfarm project co-leader and a communications and leadership sophomore. “It’s hard to do things virtually, so hopefully in the fall we’ll be able to do big planting events.”

To Adams, the seed swap project creates a sense of community — even from a distance.

“It’s a community of plant growers who might never meet, but they’re all sharing seeds and growing together,” Adams said.