As you grab your shovel to clear the next snowfall, take heart. Somewhere in Forest Park, there are gardeners already sowing seeds. Outside. Above ground. In plastic milk containers.

The process is called winter sowing. And it is one of many ideas introduced to gardeners by the staff of the Forest Park Community Garden at last Sunday’s annual seed swap.

A seed swap is basically a bartering event. Gardeners trade seeds they can’t use for seeds they’d like to get. There are a wide variety of seeds traded including herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Seeds are exchanged by those who have an excess of one plant variety for something else they’d like to try.

“I always have way too many squash seeds from store-bought packets so I’m looking to swap some of them for things like beans, herbs or tomatoes,” explained Michelle Woehrle, a board member at the community garden.

In addition, a swap gives gardeners the chance to discover a seed they might never have tried as well as the ability to learn about seeds that might have worked well for other gardeners in this growing zone.

This is over and above the economic advantage. “When you buy a pack of seeds it might be three or four dollars for tomato seeds, but when you buy a tomato plant, that’s like three or four dollars right there,” said Debbie Kong, a community garden board member.

Last year’s swap was the first for the Community Garden. The organization was founded in 2009. “In January, we really didn’t think we’d get more than 20 or 30 swappers,” said board member Julia Moran Martz. But then reservations started to come in from suburbs as far away as Joliet and Geneva. The final count showed a total of 50 participants, only two of whom had ever attended a swap before.

Genovese basil, rosemary, clary sage, purple sisho, sunspot-mix marigold, and hollyhock: the names on the seed packets are enough to make one swoon. This is what motivates gardeners to gather on a bone-chilling Sunday to trade seeds. One of the big advantages of the swap was the chance for newcomers to get some practical how-to advice. Demonstrations included how to sow seeds indoors and out, and how to care for seedlings.

In addition, many participants took the opportunity to sign up for a spot in the community garden. Last year, the garden leased 19 plots, each four feet by eight feet, for $25 for the season. Several gardeners leased more than one plot and several were set aside specifically for the Forest Park Food Pantry. This year, Julia Moran Martz anticipates that there will be 30 or more plots available for lease, each for $30. Twenty-one people are on a waiting list. These will be contacted in mid-March after last year’s renters have a chance to renew.

Hoping to capture one of these spots were Jen Sherdan and Matt Gaspar who live in a 500-foot condo in the village. “We usually buy stuff from community-supported agriculture such as Door to Door Organics,” Matt said “We thought it would be fun to grow our own.”

Drew Thomas and his fiancée leased a plot last year. “We actually were commenting on the fact that we didn’t go to the grocery store for produce for almost three months,” he said. “It was really significant.”

The Community Garden will hold a how-to class, on Sat., Mar. 12 , at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 305 Circle Ave., from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. to educate the local community on how to start their own garden.

Also, look for the Community Garden’s first official fundraiser on Thurs., May 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Molly Malone’s, 7652 Madison St.