Surprising sources of seeds: Local libraries offer materials for growing

  • Libraries throughout the state are repurposing card catalog cabinets to hold seed packets for patrons to take home. Some, like the one at the Pelham Library shown here, use the top of the cabinet to display gardening books. PHOTO PROVIDED BY PELHAM LIBRARY

  • Irene Branson, assistant at the Belding Memorial Library in Ashfield, processes apples with members of the Wildermuth family: Laurelyn, Kelan, Pepin, and Braeden (left to right). Some local libraries offer free seeds and programs to encourage patrons to learn about, grow, and process food. PHOTO COURTESY OF BELDING MEMORIAL LIBRARY

  • The Belding Memorial Library in Ashfield offered a workshop in apple processing last fall. Patrons may borrow canning equipment, a food dehydrator, a slow cooker, and other valuable tools from the library. PHOTO COURTESY OF BELDING MEMORIAL LIBRARY

For the Recorder
Published: 4/25/2022 2:13:41 PM
Modified: 4/25/2022 2:12:16 PM

Bibliophiles of a certain age fondly recall the card catalogs that graced every town’s library, with little wooden drawers revealing treasure troves guiding seekers to worlds of wisdom. But the digital age rendered those magical drawers obsolete, right?

Wrong. Local librarians breathe new life into those wonderful drawers to provide patrons not only with food for thought, but literal food, including vegetables and herbs, as well as flowers. It turns out that seed packets are easily adapted to fit drawers that formerly housed the Dewey Decimal System.

In addition to borrowing books about gardening, library patrons in Northfield, Ashfield, Turners Falls, Pelham, and at Greenfield Community College can avail themselves of seeds and — in some cases — tools, as well.

Misha Storm, director of Northfield’s Dickinson Memorial Library since last year, knew that libraries throughout the state offer seeds. A gardener herself, Storm wanted to give local patrons access to raw materials.

Born in western Massachusetts but raised mostly in Texas, Storm moved to Greenfield four years ago. While working as the director at Leverett’s library, Storm coordinated seed swaps. Patrons brought seeds saved from plants they’d grown, or extras from packets that held more than they needed, and traded with others. This inspired her to take it to the next level.

“A seed library is a good fit in Northfield,” said Storm, “where there’s an active garden club, as well as a great deal of awareness about food justice issues.” Northfield residents operate a food pantry out of the library’s basement.

Patrons can choose up to five packets per visit and — unlike with books, DVDs, or CDs — there’s no need to bring them back.

“The original concept was to have patrons grow seeds into plants, save seeds, and bring some back,” said Storm. “But that gets complicated. Our seed library is more like the Little Free Libraries you see in neighborhoods.” Library patrons are always welcome, however, to donate saved or extra seeds.

While living in Houston, Storm noticed a lack of access to local food. “There was only one farmer’s market in what’s known as The Loop.” (The Loop encompasses Houston’s central business district, delineated by Interstate 610.)

Hankering for fresh, organic vegetables, Storm started growing her own in raised beds. “Houston has two seasons,” she said, “late winter to early summer, and late summer to early winter. In July and August, it’s just too hot to garden. That kind of heat is OK for okra, but not much else. You’d have to water constantly.”

Storm recommends that patrons of seed libraries use a heavy hand while sowing. “Much of the seed we offer was packed for the preceding growing season,” she said. “Viability may have decreased, but you should be fine if you sow at a rate higher than what’s indicated on the packet.”

At the Belding Memorial Library in Ashfield, the five-year-old seed program is going strong, according to director Sarah Hertel-Fernandez. “Our goals are to make healthy food accessible to all while protecting and promoting biodiversity and heirloom plants.”

Belding’s motto is “Take what you want, share what you can,” according to Hertel-Fernandez. “Our inventory is refreshed seasonally by local gardeners.” The library also hosts plant swaps.

Last year, using grant funding, “we expanded our focus on biodiversity and sustainability by starting a lending library of gardening and food preservation equipment,” Hertel-Fernandez said. Patrons can borrow canning equipment, a food dehydrator, a 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 stuff that people can access for free, so they don’t have to purchase and store it themselves. Our collection of circulating materials, both traditional and non-traditional, belong to everyone, and we’re all richer for it.”

Library Trustee 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 an interest in growing our own food,” Coler said. “There’s a big demand for self-reliance in Ashfield, so the seed library is a big hit.”

Caitlin Kelley, director of the 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 sees to it that library patrons have access to seeds through the Turners Falls branch of the Montague system.

She’s obtained seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont. “High Mowing provides organic, non-GMO seeds that grow well in the Pioneer Valley,” said Kelley. “We also provide gardening tools as part of Carnegie’s Library of Things. We have two sets, one child-sized and the other for adults.” Each set includes basic hand tools — a trowel, hand rake, pruners — which patrons can borrow for a week at a time.

At the Pelham Library, director Jodi Levine said their seed library has been dormant for the past couple of years because of COVID closures, “but with the help of Trustee Abbie Jenks and the Pelham Garden Club, we’re restocking in time for spring planting.”

Pelham’s seed library operates on the honor system. “People can take or leave seeds,” said Levine. “We can’t guarantee that packets 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.

The Nahman-Watson Library at Greenfield Community College has kicked off this year’s gardening season. “It’s especially exciting, because the seed library was on hiatus for two years due to the pandemic,” said librarian Young-In Kim, who coordinates the GCC Seed Library.

“To celebrate, we held our first-ever campus plant swap,” said Kim. “We invited members of the campus community to bring plants, cuttings, or divisions to share. It was a great success, so we may do it again next spring, and possibly open it 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, GCC’s Natural Resources Senior Special Program Coordinator, acquires the seeds and oversees student workers, who sort and package the seeds and provide support to seed growers.

“Like many seed libraries, we focus on offering open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable and flower seed varieties,” said Kim. “We encourage, though don’t require, borrowers to return clean, saved seeds so they can be made available during the next growing season.”

Kim emphasized preservation, cultivation, and community. “We believe in sharing resources and expertise. The seeds are available for free to anyone in the local community.”

If you wonder what libraries offer in the digital age, head to your local palace of books. You may find an arts and crafts workshop, poetry festival, or story hour. You can borrow materials from an astonishingly vast network of libraries. And you just might find a colorful packet that makes a magical, whispery sound when you shake it, inspiring you to head 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:


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