If you want to spruce up your garden and maybe your plate, collect some seeds. For this, your local library might be the perfect place. Hundreds of libraries in the United States and around the world have a seed library, where packets of edible flower and plant seeds are available, usually free of charge.
Proponents of these libraries claim that free seeds provide variety for home gardeners, educational projects for families, and wider access to healthy foods. Greg Helmbrecht of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture described some of the benefits of working with seeds. “Self-reliance, fulfillment, fun, education, sharing, and basically anything that comes to mind with gardening,” he said.
how they work
Seed libraries are often housed in public libraries. You can also find them at community centers, food pantries, environmental organizations, and botanical gardens. The schools and the universities occasionally host these libraries.
Although each library sets its own rules, the seeds are generally free and users are not required to provide anything in return, said Rebecca Newburn, an organizer of Seed Library Network. The organization offers information about established libraries and offers free resources for seed-sharing enthusiasts. “While you are encouraged to educate yourself about seed saving, there is no obligation to return anything you borrow,” Newburn said.
Often companies or stores donate seeds to the library. Although some seeds may be past the expiry date indicated on the packaging, they are still likely to germinate. Some libraries enthusiastically accept seeds provided by the public, especially if they were saved from plants that germinated from seeds provided by the library. Others are unable to accept seeds from the public. Policies on seed acceptable for distribution are often tied to state agricultural laws, which vary with respect to packaging and labeling. Representatives from the Seed Library Network helped draft a model law for states that want to exempt seed libraries from certain regulations, Newburn said.
Libraries often offer helpful gardening resources and occasional gardening-related educational workshops or other events.
Vermont Community Seed Exchange
Ancient and organic seeds are among those available at Community seed exchange at the Barton Public Library. Patrons provide some of the seeds for the collection, which the library appreciates, said Pam Kennedy, founder of the volunteer-run seed library. Seeds saved from successful harvests in gardens are valuable, she said, as this indicates that they are suitable for use in the region. Save the seeds is economically and environmentally beneficial, and the library offers workshops on the proper way to save seeds. The inventory also includes packages donated by commercial seed growers.
Seeds that produce food, including squash, pumpkins, green beans, beets and tomatoes, are some of the popular varieties, Kennedy said, because many rural residents grow food in their gardens. Library patrons often select flower seeds that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to support their food crops.
The ability to choose from a range of seeds, including unusual varieties of vegetables, is part of the library’s appeal, Kennedy explained. Sometimes he receives packets of seeds for produce with an interesting appearance or story, like twisted summer squash from Italy or an heirloom tomato from a prison garden.
The exchange works with partner organizations and often shares its supply with other libraries, schools and a nearby community garden. With its partners, the exchange offers workshops on seed starting, garden planning and seed saving, Kennedy explained. “We also organize practical activities on seeds and gardening with our local primary school,” she said.
Nebraska Seed Catalog
The Blair Public Library offers flowers and vegetables in its seed stock. Like many other libraries, Blair displays its inventory in a repurposed card catalog. The main users, according to a library official, are families with children who want to sow seeds as a fun and educational family activity. Popular seeds include watermelons, beans, and other edibles.
Florida Seed Library
A library in Jupiter, Florida buys seed and accepts free packaged seed offered by companies in the seed industry. The collection includes heirloom and hybrid seeds.
Often, the library splits packaged seeds into smaller packets, providing a few plants for users to try, said librarian Diane Gilmore, who created the seed library. The library asks users not to take more than five packs. Each packet includes planting instructions. Popular choices include spinach, arugula and parsley, Gilmore said.
Like many other such libraries, the Jupiter branch offers programs and presentations on gardening topics, often featuring master gardeners.
Libraries in your area
Seed Library Network offers a list of participants Seed Libraries. If your area is not listed, phone local libraries and ask if they offer a seed library. Other likely organizations include community centers, food pantries, environmental organizations, and garden clubs.
If you want to build a library or share seeds on your own, check out these resources:
Image courtesy of Brooke Zarco, Director of the Library of Blair Public Library and Technology Center