“Stay Seedy” and Check Out Seed Libraries and a Local Seeds Atlas

To meet the ever-changing needs of their users, libraries are experimenting with adding non-traditional items to their collections.  E-readers and guitars are some unique items that libraries are using to attract and serve those who live in their communities.

Thats what I learned inKiller Collections: Thinking Beyond the Book,a webinar that I listened to on July 21, 2011. During the webinar that was offered by Infopeople, a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) project that provides training programs through the California State Library, I also discovered a creative new concept that Patrick Sweeney, branch manager for the San Mateo County Libraries, discussed — a seed lending library.

A seed library offers a library the opportunity not only to promote sustainable organic gardening in its community, but also to provide its patrons with access to fresh, healthy food. It’s also like a traditional library in many ways. Seed library users check out seeds, at no charge, to plant and grow in their gardens at home. After harvesting the crops, they save and return seeds to be used in the next growing season.

The seed library initiative is a great example of the successful collaboration that can result between a library and a community. Sponsoring organizations can provide the seeds to begin the initiative, and can give programs on organic gardening and seed-saving, the technique that allows gardeners to recover and return seeds for the next year. The library not only provides the physical space and the circulation expertise for the project, but also utilizes its collection of gardening books and offers reference advice on gardening.

Patrick talked about how the East Palo Alto Seed Library began as an idea from the Richmond Public Library’s Richmond Grows Seed Library, a seed-swapping community in the San Francisco area. Patrick partnered with Collective Roots, a local nonprofit organization that not only works with young people and adults to design and sustain organic gardens on school and community sites, but also runs a weekly farmer’s market in the community.

The East Palo Alto Seed Library opened in April 2011. In addition to providing seeds, it offers information about growing healthy, sustainable foods and gardens. It is open to all residents of East Palo Alto, at no charge, and is maintained by library staff, Collective Roots, and volunteers.

Here’s how the seed library works. A chart helps patrons find out what seed to plant. They find the seed packet, take out five or ten seeds, put them in a stamped seed envelope, and use a sign-out sheet to record what they took. Then, they write information about planting and watering on the seed envelope to help them care for their seeds when they get home. Those who check out seeds are encouraged to take a picture of and share a story about a plant that resulted from a seed check-out.

The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library offers helpful suggestions to libraries interested in starting their own seed lending library. To begin, it’s helpful to establish relationships with a local garden club or master gardeners, and to locate a well-visited community space to house the seed library. Then, it suggests finding a sturdy cabinet to house the seeds, with dividers in the drawers to organize the seeds into rows and labels for both the outside of the drawers and the dividers in the drawers. Stamps and stamp pads for checking the seeds in and out, envelopes for borrowing seeds, and a PC desktop computer with a database for members to check out and donate or return seeds are useful supplies to have on hand. Where labels are concerned, the library recommends using three seed-saving categories (super-easy, easy, and difficult) and labeling the drawers by families. It also suggests having “seed markers” on hand for people to stick in the drawers so they can easily return packets where they found them. Creating signage and brochures helps not only to promote the program, but also to educate patrons about seed-saving.

I filed my notes about seed libraries and didn’t think about them again until earlier this month, when my parents told me about their trip to the Philadelphia International Flower Show and a seed library that was a marketplace vendor there.

Ken Greene started working at the Gardiner Library, a small public library in the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York, when he was finishing his graduate degree in special education. He ran programs, wrote grants, developed collections for children and teens, and did his share of shelving, checking out items, and weeding. In his free time, he pursued his interest in gardening, which inspired him to learn how to save seeds and share them with others. In 2004, he added seeds to the Gardiner Library’s catalog so patrons could check out seeds, grow them in their gardens, harvest seeds from the plants they grew, and return the new seeds to the library for another patron to use.

Four years later, Ken and Doug Muller started the Hudson Valley Seed Library, an independent source of regionally adapted seeds. While it’s primarily focused on the Northeast, it also offers a seed catalog for all gardeners and a blog, Seeder’s Digest.

The Hudson Valley Seed Library has its own seed farm, where open-pollinated seeds are grown, saved and packed by hand. The seed library has almost 1,000 members, who pay an annual membership fee. For the 2012 growing season, members pay $25 plus shipping, which includes ten free packs of seeds and discounts on additional packs.  Members are encouraged — but not required — to save seeds each season to return to the library.  A small incentive is offered to those who return seeds by giving credits toward the following year’s membership fee for each type of seed returned.

If you’d rather not be a member of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, you can also purchase accessible, affordable heirloom flower, vegetable and herb seeds through its catalog. This year, over 60 varieties of locally grown seeds and around 140 varieties of seeds sourced from seed houses will be offered.

The Hudson Valley Seed Library offers three different types of seed packs. Art Packs are gift-quality seed packs featuring original artwork that celebrates the beauty of heirloom gardening. Each pack is designed by a different artist; stories about each seed are printed on the inside of the pack. Library Packs contain seed that was grown on the seed librarys farm in Accord, New York by member farmers and  gardeners.  About 15 farms are part of the seed librarys seed-growing network in the Hudson Valley.  Garden Packs contain seed that was obtained from responsible wholesale seed suppliers.

Nails chose Art Packs for Velvet Queen Sunflower, Painted Daisy, and Strawflower seeds, as well as a Garden Pack of Heavenly Blue Morning Glory seeds.  Even the Membership Kit is packaged in the style of an Art Pack.  It features an illustration from the B.K. Bliss & Sons Seed Catalog 1881, from the Hudson Valley Seed Librarys collection of vintage seed catalogs and ephemera.

Ken and Doug also offered a very limited edition Art Pack for the Philadelphia International Flower Show.  The Hardy Hibiscus Mix seed pack was available through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society website and at the Flower Show. For each pack purchased, PHS and the Seed Library donate a pack of vegetable seeds to City Harvest, a program that helps feed families in need.

Ken and Dougs seed farm intern from 2011, Emily Martin, started her own seed library tracking organization, The Seedshed ProjectLast November, Emily started mapping seed libraries, seed swaps, and community seed gardens in the United States at the Local Seeds AtlasIn addition to connecting people to sources of locally grown seeds and to groups who save and share seeds in their communities, the project will be a guide for creating seed sheds.

According to the Richmond Grows Seed Library’s list of Sister Seed Lending Libraries, there aren’t any seed libraries in Ohio, but The Local Seeds Atlas indicates that the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati holds seed swaps. Until a library or exchange gets started in central Ohio, one local back yard is going to “stay seedy” from checking out some seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library.

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