By David Frey
Photography by Christopher Richards
You can borrow a book on gardening at just about any public library. But in a growing number of libraries across the country, you can also check out an actual garden.
At these seed libraries, old card catalogs are stuffed not with index cards typewritten with Dewey Decimal System numbers, but with seed packets to take home, plant, water, and grow. Library patrons can check them out, just like a book, but there’s no due date — just a hope that gardeners will raise the plants and if possible, collect the seeds they produce and return them to the library for future patrons.
About 500 seed libraries have sprouted up across the country. Some are run by botanic gardens, master gardeners, high schools, colleges, nonprofits, or agricultural groups. But often, they’re run by public libraries that look at seed libraries as an extension of what they have always done.
“A library is a repository for resources, right?” asks Justine Hernandez, librarian at Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Ariz. “A book is a resource, but so is a seed. It leads to something else that’s enriching and can facilitate healthier communities. So we were looking at it in that bigger picture.”
Amid the bookshelves at Pima County libraries, card catalogs hold more than 200 different seed varieties, many of them developed particularly for the hot, dry climate of the Arizona desert. Check out tepary beans and you can grow a speckled bean that has nourished inhabitants of the desert Southwest since long before European settlers arrived. Take home a packet of Nichols tomato seeds and you can grow a cherry tomato that loves the hot, sunny desert weather — a variety the Nichols family has preserved for half a century.
“There are seeds that have been passed down over many, many generations with the story of the folks that brought them, so they have a rare sense of history in place,” Hernandez says. “By saving them, you’re creating a new provenance in place and history.”