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Main Content

Sprouting Up

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.”

‘Sharing and Carrying On’

The seeds vary from place to place, but the seed library’s mission remains the same wherever it is: to protect, preserve, and propagate plants that thrive in that region’s soil.

These are open-pollinated plants, not genetically-modified crops, not hybrids. Sometimes they’re historic heirloom varieties that risk being forgotten. Sometimes they’re bred specifically for that region, whether it’s chilly Alaska or tropical Hawaii. That means you’ll find packets of red kerala amaranth at Richmond Grows in Richmond, Calif., and bush beans at the Goochland Library at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va.

It’s a way to preserve history, culture and genetic diversity, promote a sense of community, and grow some delicious food, all at the same time.

“The whole idea of seed sharing is about sharing and carrying on,” Hernandez says, “but it’s also about testing seeds that can be better acclimated to more local environments so they become adapted to the region in which they are grown and saved and replanted from. By saving seed locally and selecting from plants that are healthy and tasty, the seeds become acclimated over time to this particular environment.”

Pima County Public Library’s expansion from books to seeds started in 2011 when Hernandez was doing community outreach at the local farmer’s market. Someone asked her if she knew about seed libraries. She didn’t, but when she learned about them, she loved what she heard. It seemed a great way to grow community as well as grow vegetables, she thought, and a good way to grow the library in the Internet age.

She found that a local seed conservation organization, Native Seed Search, was thinking about starting a seed library, too, so they started working together, with help from seed libraries already up and running elsewhere in the country.

Local growers provide some of the seeds, but most of it came from seed companies. And while the goal is to get lenders to save and return seeds, that can be hard for new gardeners, Hernandez says.

At first, she wants people to “get their hands dirty and play,” Hernandez says. She’s not worried about gardeners returning seeds to the library. But over the years, she says, locals are providing more of the seeds and seed companies are providing fewer.

“The ultimate goal is for this to be totally community sustained,” says Hernandez, who has become an avid gardener and seed saver herself.

Now, she’s helping seed libraries across the country as local initiatives take root. Last year, she helped organize an International Seed Library Forum in Tucson to help budding seed libraries from Canada to Peru.

“It’s a really powerful tool for building community,” Hernandez says.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, Hernandez says. A shoebox and a three-ring notebook will do. But it needs to reflect the local community, she says, and like a plant, it needs room to grow and change.