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Magazine Feature

Simple Steps to Starting a Seed Library

by Emily Weak on January 5, 2015

A little more than a year ago, we started a seed library at the Mountain View (Calif.) Public Library (MVPL). I was working as an hourly librarian at the time, so my supervisor and I were looking for projects that would be interesting, innovative, and not require a huge time commitment. I was inspired by a successful yet simple seed library I’d seen a few years ago, which was housed in a single Tupperware container under the library’s stairs. It made me realize that starting a seed library need not be a complicated affair.

The MVPL Seed Library launched in April 2013 with a plant exchange. Patrons were invited to bring culls, clippings, and spare seedlings to trade with their neighbors. A blurb on the flyer let people know that we were also accepting donations for our new seed library. Over the course of three hours on a Saturday, more than 120 patrons exchanged over 400 plants, and we received enough seeds to start our library.

How the Seed Library Works

We accept all kinds of seed donations, of both commercially packaged and saved seed. If the donation is saved seed, we ask donors to fill out a form, providing information such as variety, harvest year and location, contact information, and growing notes. We repackage donations into coin envelopes, cramming as much of that information as possible onto a mailing label and sticking it on the front.

Based on practices at other seed libraries, I decided that each envelope should contain enough seed for three to five plants. Given that not all seeds germinate, that means there are generally between nine and fifteen seeds in each packet. Some seeds are incredibly tiny––dust sized even––and for those we generally disregard the rule and just put a pinch in each envelope. Conversely, some seeds are quite large, and consequently those  envelopes will contain fewer seeds.

When we first started, we put the packets in a Tupperware container and stuck it underneath our stairs. Nearly a year later, we have enough seeds for two containers, and large metal recipe file drawer. We’re in the process of moving to a larger standing file cabinet.

Due to lack of time, we don’t strictly monitor what is being “checked out,” but we do have a sign-out sheet where people write their name, the seeds they’ve taken, and can include an email address if they are interested in our gardening programs or in volunteering. I currently have a list of nearly 150 names.

Staffing

When we started, we had the notion that we would find interested volunteers to run our seed library. Our model was based on the Potrero Hill branch of the San Francisco Library, whose seed library is primarily stocked and maintained by a local gardening organization. While nearly a year later we have a core group of about six volunteers that help with stocking and programming, we are still managing the library ourselves. This is because it has proved to be an excellent way to reach out to gardeners and grow community interest in the library. Also, keeping control has let me add resources and re-envision operations in response to our community.

I am still the sole staff member working on the library. The time commitment varies on my end. Last year, after the initial setup, I spent an hour or so each week on maintenance and stocking. This year, our success will probably increase the amount of time needed on my end. Right now we’re ramping up for the growing season, so I’ve got a group of volunteers meeting for an hour and a half each week, and then I’m probably spending an additional two hours each week prepping labels, doing website maintenance, and planning programs. This total time will most likely scale back in fall and winter.

Programming

Programming has been integral in building interest and community. As mentioned earlier, we used a plant exchange to collect the donations used to start the library. The success of this event also created an initial pleasant buzz (apparently our plant exchange was more civilized and friendly than another local plant exchange).

A few weeks after launching the library, Patrick O’Connor from the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) came to the library to give a talk about saving seeds. Before the event we were thinking that seed saving was an activity we could get everyone to participate in, and that the seed library would eventually be entirely stocked with saved seeds. However this talk, which attracted twenty-one attendees, helped us to realize that seed saving was an activity that very often required skill and a large amount of square footage, in addition to desire and enthusiasm. We started to think about adjusting our plan for restocking.

Next I found a local ally in Patricia Larenas, through her lovely blog, Urban Artichoke. In her blog, Larenas talked about seed saving––she does seed trials for Seed Saver’s Exchange, and for local bean company Rancho Gordo as a “bean buddy.” Larenas’s knowledge and enthusiasm helped build our understanding of the needs of local gardeners and seed savers, as well as attracting new seed library patrons. Larenas gave two talks for us. In early May, a few weeks after O’Connor’s seed saving talk, she presented to twenty-one patrons on starting plants from seeds. Then in mid-August, she spoke to sixty patrons about planning, growing, and eating a kitchen garden.

Our city has a local hero, Firefighter Mike. In addition to helping keep our city safe, Firefighter Mike has a love of vegetable gardening. He has built gardens at two of our city’s fire stations. His current post is just under three-fourths of a mile from the library, so one morning in mid July we invited patrons to walk or roll over there for a tour of his garden. Our garden visit let us connect with our community in a new way. We took a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, chatting about the gardens we passed, and then heard an inspirational story from a passionate gardener. We saw some great looking plants and some cool fire trucks, too. We had thirty-two patrons of all ages join us for this event, the littlest one in his own firefighter suit.

At the end of the season, we put on two final programs. In August, our crop swap ended up being much smaller than the plant exchange, with only twelve attendees. However, there was a lot of delicious produce exchanged, and one woman even made homemade jam. In October we put on another talk about seed saving, given by Santa Clara county master gardener Hillie Salo to twenty-one attendees.

Our library is also lucky enough to host ongoing programing by two other groups––the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners, who come in every eight weeks, and the Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency, which presents talks on water-wise gardening and landscaping.

In 2014, we have found more opportunities to interact with the gardening community. Our second annual plant exchange took place at the end of March. We are partnering with five other seed libraries and Hillie Salo to present Silicon Valley Grows, a seed-saving program modeled on One Book, One Community programs. We’re talking to a group that works to create school gardens and kid gardening programs. I have hopes of doing a handson tomato planting, followed by a tomato tasting at the end of the season. Seed Saving versus

Seed Sharing

Seed libraries have a strong association with seed saving. Seed saving is exactly what it sounds like: the practice of preserving seeds from plants in order to grow them next season. When we started, our vision was that the library would be restocked with primarily saved seed. However, seed
saving can actually be quite complicated! Some plants, such as beans and tomatoes, are fairly easy to save, but others, such as corn, require that a large number of plants be grown in order to preserve genetic diversity. And some plants, such as squash and melons, need to have their flowers bagged in order to ensure that the next generation will be viable and, well, edible. Education in seed saving has been part of our mission, but for new gardeners who just want to see if they can grow a pumpkin, seed saving may be too complicated, time-consuming, or confusing. And for urban and suburban gardeners, who may have smaller plots, growing the minimum number of plants
may be impossible.

Additionally, a slight majority of our donations are actually opened commercial seed packets. For those smaller plots in urban and suburban gardens, a packet may contain too many seeds. So, instead of letting open packets languish in the shed, gardeners bring their leftovers to share. Some of these packets are actually hybrid varieties, and hybrid plants don’t create seed that will give you the same lovely plant the next year. We still put these hybrid seeds into the library, although we do label them. So the focus of our seed library is more on seed sharing, rather than seed saving.

Why Seed Libraries Belong in Public Libraries

Just as traditional libraries enrich a community by providing a way to share books, seed libraries enrich the gardening community by allowing gardeners to share seeds. There are many parallels.

Seed libraries offer a more efficient way to deploy community resources. They encourage experimentation, affording gardeners (or aspiring gardeners) a low-risk way to try something new. They provide a supported entrance into the gardening world for novices. And seed libraries support
a kind-of botanical literacy, teaching people what different plants look like and how they grow.

Seed libraries also support information sharing and preservation. Gardening is a localized knowledge, built through experience. While written guidelines can be helpful, person-to-person information sharing is how gardeners can learn how to be successful in their own unique environments.
Localized knowledge can tell a gardener what the fog in San Francisco does to tomatoes, for example, or when to actually start seeds if your region never experiences a “first frost.” As our climate changes, it will be even more important to preserve and share this understanding of how to garden in a range of conditions.

Start It Up!

For a minimal initial investment, a seed library creates a new way for the community to engage with your library. While some seed libraries are comprehensively indexed, elaborate affairs, a simple box of seeds is enough to sow interest in both veteran and novice gardeners.

Resources

In addition to this article, there are a number of excellent resources that will help create the seed library that’s right for your community.

  • The backbone of our seed library community is Richmond Grows! The website includes information on saving seeds and on starting a seed library, and has a Spanish translation available.
  • The Richmond Grows! network includes two essential resources:
    1. The Seed Libraries page has videos explaining different seed library systems, a page of featured libraries as examples, a resource page, and a discussion forum.
    2. The Seed Library Social Network has a member map, blog, and drop box with documents that can be repurposed in new seed libraries.
    3. The Center for the New American
  • Dream hosted a webinar on starting seed libraries. If you’re looking to run a more elaborate seed library, the librarians who present give helpful information for a more detailed planning process and organization.
  • In addition to selling seeds, Seed Saver’s Exchange is a well-established resource for information on saving seeds, sustainable agriculture, and preserving our food heritage. Their series of webinars is particularly illuminating.

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