The Recorder – Surprising seed sources: Local libraries offer growing materials
Bibliophiles of a certain age fondly remember the card catalogs that adorned every town’s library, with little wooden drawers revealing treasures guiding seekers to worlds of wisdom. But the digital age has made those magic drawers obsolete, right?
Bad. Local librarians breathe new life into these wonderful drawers to provide patrons with not just food for thought, but literal food, including vegetables and herbs, and flowers. It turns out the seed packets are easily adapted to fit the drawers that once housed the Dewey Decimal System.
In addition to borrowing gardening books, patrons of the Northfield, Ashfield, Turners Falls, Pelham and Greenfield Community College libraries can avail themselves of seeds and, in some cases, tools as well.
Misha Storm, director of the Dickinson Memorial Library in Northfield since last year, knew that libraries across the state were donating seeds. A gardener herself, Storm wanted to give local customers access to raw materials.
Born in western Massachusetts but raised primarily in Texas, Storm moved to Greenfield four years ago. While working as director of the Leverett Library, Storm coordinated seed exchanges. Customers brought in seeds saved from plants they had grown, or extras from packets containing more than they needed, and traded them with others. It inspired her to take it to the next level.
“A seed library is a good fit for Northfield,” Storm said, “where there is an active garden club, as well as a great awareness of food justice issues.” Residents of Northfield operate a pantry in the basement of the library.
Customers can choose up to five packs per visit and, unlike books, DVDs or CDs, there is no need to return them.
“The original concept was to have customers grow seeds in plants, save seeds, and bring some back,” Storm said. “But it gets complicated. Our seed library is more like the little free libraries you see in the neighborhoods. Library patrons are always welcome, however, to donate saved or additional seeds.
While living in Houston, Storm noticed a lack of access to local food. “There was only one farmer’s market in what’s called The Loop.” (The Loop encompasses Houston’s central business district, bounded by Interstate 610.)
Craving fresh, organic vegetables, Storm started growing her own in raised beds. “Houston has two seasons,” she said, “from late winter to early summer and from late summer to early winter. In July and August, it It’s just too hot to garden in. That kind of heat is good for okra, but not much else. You’d have to water constantly.
Storm recommends seed library customers to use a heavy hand when seeding. “Much of the seed we offer was packaged for the previous growing season,” she said. “Viability may have gone down, but should be fine if you sow at a rate higher than what is stated on the packet.”
At the Belding Memorial Library in Ashfield, the five-year seed program continues, according to director Sarah Hertel-Fernandez. “Our goals are to make healthy food accessible to all while protecting and promoting biodiversity and heritage plants.”
Belding’s motto is “Take what you want, share what you can”, according to Hertel-Fernandez. “Our inventory is renewed seasonally by local gardeners.” The library also hosts plant exchanges.
Last year, through grants, “we expanded our focus on biodiversity and sustainability by launching a lending library of gardening and food storage equipment,” Hertel-Fernandez said. Customers can borrow canning equipment, a food dehydrator, slow cooker and other valuable tools. “It’s a common-sense extension of the Seed Library, as well as our mission as a public library.”
Hertel-Fernandez sees the library as “a repository of useful things that people can access for free, so they don’t have to buy and store them themselves. Our collection of circulating materials, traditional and non-traditional, belongs to everyone, and we are all richer for it.
Library Administrator Esther Coler coordinates the Ashfield Seed Library. “In addition to wanting healthy food to be accessible to everyone in our community, we also want to spark interest in growing our own food,” Coler said. “There is a strong demand for autonomy in Ashfield, so the seed library is a great success.”
Caitlin Kelley, director of Montague Libraries, started her first seed library while working at the Mason Square Branch Library in Springfield in 2016, and coordinated one at the Rockville Public Library in 2019. Kelley now oversees that library patrons have access to seeds. by the Turners Falls branch of the Montague system.
She got seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont. “High Mowing provides non-GMO organic seeds that grow well in the Pioneer Valley,” Kelley said. “We also provide gardening tools as part of Carnegie’s Library of Things. We have two sets, one for children and the other for adults. Each set includes basic hand tools – a trowel, hand rake, pruners – which customers can borrow for a week at a time.
At the Pelham Library, manager Jodi Levine said their seed library has been inactive for two years due to COVID closures, “but with the help of administrator Abbie Jenks and the Pelham Garden Club, we’re restocking at time for spring planting.”
Pelham’s Seed Library operates on the honor system. “People can take or leave seeds,” Levine said. “We can’t guarantee the packages contain what’s on the label, but people are pretty honest.” Librarians use the top of the card catalog to display gardening books and information about upcoming gardening programs.
Local residents may not be aware of a library tucked into the west side of Greenfield where people can also access information – and seeds.
Greenfield Community College’s Nahman-Watson Library kicked off this year’s gardening season. “It’s especially exciting because the seed library has been on hiatus for two years due to the pandemic,” said Librarian Young-In Kim, who coordinates the GCC’s seed library.
“To celebrate, we held our first-ever factory swap on campus,” Kim said. “We invited members of the campus community to bring plants, cuttings or divisions to share. It was a great success, so we might do it again next spring and possibly open it up to the wider Greenfield community.
The GCC Seed Library, a collaboration between the school’s science department and the Nahman-Watson Library, began in 2015. Tony Reiber, senior coordinator of GCC’s special natural resources program, acquires the seeds and oversees the student workers, who sort and pack seeds and provide support to seed growers.
“Like many seed libraries, we are focused on offering open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable and flower seed varieties,” Kim said. “We encourage, but do not require, borrowers to return clean, saved seed so that it can be available during the next growing season.”
Kim emphasized preservation, culture and community. “We believe in sharing resources and expertise. The seeds are freely available to all members of the local community.
If you’re wondering what libraries offer in the digital age, head to your local book palace. You can find an arts and crafts workshop, a poetry festival or a story hour. You can borrow materials from a surprisingly large network of libraries. And you might find a colorful package that makes a magical, whispering sound when you shake it, urging you to go home and dig in the dirt.
Eveline MacDougall loves gardening and libraries, and was thrilled to work on a story featuring both. The author of “Fiery Hope”, she welcomes comments from readers: [email protected].