A seed library operates just like your local library, but instead of stocking books it carries vegetable, annual and perennial seeds. The idea behind them is to encourage seed saving, the exchange of seed history, nurture new gardeners, exchange gardening information and build communities through seeds. Seed libraries are also great ways to acquire heirloom and open pollinated seeds. The biggest benefit though of a seed library, in my opinion, is how it can help foster a feeling of community among people who may have little else in common.
How do they work?
Seed libraries can be separated into two categories. Free seed libraries and membership supported seed libraries. Usually, you pay a yearly fee and you may be guaranteed a certain number of seed packs as part of your membership and access to other seeds in the library's reserves. The cost of participating isn’t an indicator of the quality of the seeds. Depending on the rules for a particular seed library you may be required to return a certain amount of seed back into the library’s stock at the end of the growing season to replenish it for next year. In the case of membership supported seed libraries the seed you return back may entitle you to a discount on the next year’s membership fee.
Who can start one?
Seed libraries can be started by anyone with a desire to help preserve the genetic diversity of seeds, or who would like to use gardening as a tool to strengthen a community. They can be part of a garden club’s outreach to new members, a block club’s tool to beautify their neighborhood, or part of the curriculum of a school garden.
How to Start a Seed Library
If you don’t already have a large supply of seeds the spring and summer months are a great time to start a seed library. Organize a group of people to help run and maintain the seed library. Set down clear rules for the growing practices you want to employ. Is growing organic important to you? How should pests and diseases be handled? Will there be a cost associated with joining your seed library? As a group decide on the ground rules and write them down.
Create a grow-out group from the group of organizers. One group of gardeners can grow the annuals, another perennials, and a third the vegetables. Since one of the reasons behind starting a seed library is the preservation of heirloom seeds, you can avoid cross-pollination by growing only one variety of seed per garden. For example, one gardener can grow and save tomatoes seeds for ‘Green Zebra’ and another gardener can grow ‘Mortgage Lifter’ in their garden. See my post on how to save seeds in your garden for some tips on harvesting seeds and my post on how to create a seed bank for ideas on seed storage.
Think about the kinds of people who you will borrow seeds from your seed library. Will they be kids and casual gardeners? Or will your seed library be for serious gardeners and seed savers? Decide on the kinds of seeds you grow with your membership in mind. You’ll have to teach some people how to plant seeds and others how to save the seed at the end of the year.
Seeds that are inexpensive and easy to start or save include: cleome, pot marigolds, beans, basil, marigolds, tomatoes, purple coneflowers, cucumbers, watermelons, nasturtiums, radishes, hyacinth bean vines, columbines, cosmos, lettuce, zinnia and sunflowers.
Seed Libraries in America
Chicago Seed Library
Portland Seed Library
Bay Area Seed Interchange Library
Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library
Seed Library of Los Angeles
Hudson Valley Seed Library
I encourage you to start a seed library in your community and use it to reach out to new gardeners, meet older gardeners and teach younger gardeners about the joys of gardening. Seeds grow more than just flowers, they create new friends, strengthen ties with friends you have known for years, they tether you to history and build bridges to the future. I've begun the process of creating a seed library and seed bank for gardeners in Chicago, Il., if you'd like to participate and have some gardening experience or seeds feel free to get in contact with me. You can find out more information on my Seed Snatcher blog.