Michelle Sixta for Country Extra Card catalogs are now sprouting a new role at public libraries across the country. Instead of organizing by author, title, and subject, think lettuce, tomatoes, and kale.
And forget the late fees. Seeds are free with one simple request—that you pay them forward.
“Our patrons check out seed packets on their library cards, just as they do books or CDs,” says Gail Owens, coordinator of the seed lending program at the regional library in Basalt, Colorado. If they have a successful harvest, patrons are asked to return seeds from the best of their yield to replenish the library’s collection for the next growing season.
Seed lending libraries grew out of the eat-local movement, says Stephanie Syson, a permaculture teacher and herbalist who helped launch the program in Basalt. And it doesn’t get more local than your own backyard.
“We gathered healthy vegetable, herb, and flower seeds adapted to this environment,” Stephanie says. “Our starter stock was donated by area farmers, gardeners and seed companies that offered organic, heirloom and open-pollinated (nonhybrid) varieties.”
Courtesy Basalt regional libraryIn the weeks before the seed library’s grand opening, volunteers gathered for sorting parties. “We divided the bulk seeds into about 2,000 small packets, labeled them and put on bar codes,” Gail says. “Then we sorted the plants according to the work it takes to save their seeds”—from super-easy (peas, beans, lettuce, and tomatoes) to difficult (broccoli, cucumbers, and pumpkins).
The library provided an ample supply of gardening books and videos, and the staff also offered workshops. In late summer, they threw a tomato-tasting party so the gardeners could share their best, Gail says.
Community outreach is the Basalt seed library’s No. 1 priority. “The town offered us a section of its public park for a seed-saving garden,” Stephanie says. “We grow about a dozen vegetables and herbs there strictly for library seeds.”
A sign posted between the rows reminds park visitors not to nibble.
When Rebecca Newburn helped found the Richmond Grows Seed- Lending Library during 2010 in Richmond, California, “we were one of the first housed in a public library,” she says. “We designed it as a model other communities could duplicate. Now there are nearly 400 seed libraries in the U.S. and in 15 other countries.”
Many schools, churches, food pantries, museums and private homes have started seed libraries using Richmond Grows’ guide (richmondgrowsseeds.org). Some are social, with folks swapping seeds and recipes. For others, the goal is to offer nutritious food in areas where it isn’t easy to find.
Most importantly, Rebecca says, seed libraries reconnect us to our food, the land and the ancient rituals of our ancestors along with skills needed to save seeds and the motivation to share them.
American Library Association President Sari Feldman sees seeds as just one way libraries go beyond the bookshelf. “Libraries now offer e-books, musical instruments, tools, and toys—all ways to connect with the community and promote sharing,” she says. And they may be turning bookworms into green thumbs in the process.
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