Great ideas usually start out small, sprout, and then begin to grow.
That’s what’s happening here as seed libraries and seed exchanges are increasing in popularity.
These libraries, typically located inside regular libraries, give seeds to patrons free of charge, and most of them accept seeds in return.
They’re great resources for any gardeners, say people involved in the ventures.
“You can take seeds out and you can return them — it’s like checking out a book and then bringing it back,” said Rosalia Slawson, assistant library director at the WJ Niederkorn Library in Port Washington.
The seed library started in 2014, and by last year it had 30 types of seeds to give away, Slawson said.
“We expect to have about the same amount this year. It’s been very popular. The comments we get are that people are grateful that we offer it. We have a strong garden community in Port Washington, so it’s been well received,” she said.
Seed libraries are good “for those who want to try new plants without buying seed packets that come in large quantities,” said Kathy Blume, campus and interlibrary loan librarian at the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Mequon Campus, where there has been a seed library since 2018.
At her library, gardeners from Southeastern Wisconsin can “borrow” up to five packets of vegetable, herb and/or flower seeds during each spring and fall ordering season.
To secure seeds, she said, gardeners can look at the library’s website (guides.matc.edu/seedlibrary) and fill out an order form, then later pick up the seeds at the campus. They can also visit the library in person and flip though binders with information on available plants. Seeds are not mailed out.
Many of the seeds are obtained from donors, she said, but patrons who borrow seeds can also help the program expand by returning seeds from the plants they grew; however this is optional.
This year the seed library will run through May 20.
Stacy Mose, reference library and seed librarian at the MATC Mequon Campus, said when the seed library started giving out seeds, seed libraries were just starting to gain in popularity.
“Then there were quite a few of them in public libraries, and patrons were embracing the concept. It was also a no brainer here, because we have a landscape/horticulture department. We thought let’s give this a shot,” she said, and added that program is a joint educational project between the MATC Libraries Mequon Campus and the MATC Landscape Horticulture program.
Typically, 60 to 80 seed varieties are available at the library, Mose said. Last year 200 types of seeds were available throughout the season.
“But we are constantly updating the inventory,” said Blume, who added that the kinds and amounts of seeds they have depend on what is sent to them by donors.
Lydia C. Nimke, adult services librarian at Tippecanoe branch library in Milwaukee, said her seed library started in 2018 and goes on all year.
“It’s a no cost, low barrier way to get into seeing where your food comes from,” she said. “Our first batch of seeds was donated to us from the Seed Savers Exchange. They were all heirloom seeds. Since then we have been buying seeds each fall when they go on sale.”
Her library primarily carries seeds for vegetable and herbs and typically has 30 to 40 kinds of seeds, she said. In addition to seeds from donors and purchases, the library also accepts seeds from patrons who borrowed seeds in spring then gathered them from the same plants in fall.
At the Whitefish Bay Public Library, seeds are purchased from the Burpee seed company, then given to library patrons, said Library Director Nyama Y. Reed. She organizes the seed library, which started in 2020.
“The goal is to encourage growing new flowers or veggies without having to invest in a 100- to 500-seed packet yourself,” she said.
To be sure seeds are organic, her library does not accept seeds from patrons, she said. The seeds are kept on a countertop, and library patrons can come in and take as many as they want, she added.
‘A mission to promote gardening’
Blume said the firms that donate seeds to the MATC library are vital to the success of the program.
“We really appreciate the generosity of our seed donors who send us the seeds for free. It’s the only way we could do this. They have a mission to promote gardening and to help keep some of the seed varieties that may become extinct otherwise,’ she said.
“Last year we had six different donor companies that provided us with their seeds,” she added.
“This year we expect to have around the same number. Many were organic and heirloom seed companies that provide seeds to seed libraries, seed banks and community gardens,” she said.
One of her favorite resources, and one of the most popular with seed library patrons, is the Mequon Nature Preserve.
“They provide us with native seeds from their properties. They harvest the seeds, and we distribute them,” she said.
When any seeds are received, library staff repackages them.
“We repackage them into single serving sizes. We try to provide enough seeds to get started. The number of seeds depends on the plant. We also create a short information sheet that we include with each packet. It gives instructions for planting, and it has information like how deep to plant the seeds, how many days to maturity, and details about the plant. There’s also a photo,” she said.
At Tippecanoe the seeds stay in their original packages, and patrons are asked to take however many seeds they need and to check them out so staff knows how many seeds are still available to others, Nimke said. Gardeners are also given sheets with information on the seeds they took.
Reed said seed packets that Whitefish Bay Library buys are divided into smaller amounts and put into color-coded envelopes.
“Green envelopes are for vegetables, purple for flowers, maybe blue are herbs. Then we put labels on them with shortened information on things like when to plant them, and how far apart to plant them.”
Slawson said her Port Washington library buys flower, vegetable and herb seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, but also accepts seeds from patrons who borrow their seeds then harvest seeds from what they grew.
Seeds are put out early in the year, and patrons can take up to six seed packets, she said.
“We like to get them out by mid-February for those who like to start planting inside. We start getting questions about the seed library in January from those who are eager to get started,” she said, and added that the seed library remains available to patrons until all the seeds are gone, which is usually in midsummer.
The seed packets are stored in card catalog cabinets.
“We use an old card catalog cabinet to organize them, and we separate the seeds into smaller amounts. This year the staff has been working on that, but last year we had some teen volunteers helping to sort and package them up,” she said.
“We also have a pollinator garden at our entrance with six garden beds. We have native species planted in there, and it’s a nice complement to the seed library,” she added.
Grass, flowers and vegetables are popular
Popular seeds at MATC Mequon range from grasses to tomatoes, Mose said.
“Everyone wants the grasses. They’re very popular, especially the Big Bluestem and Prairie Blazing Star. Purple Prairie Clover and coneflowers are also popular,” she said.
“Last year we also had Balloon Vine, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, and things like asters, cosmos, zinnias and snap dragon,” she added.
Vegetables are also sought after, she said.
“Lettuces we love are some of the varieties of Asian lettuces. We have also had mascara lettuce that looks like it’s painted around the edges, Osaka purple mustard greens and rainbow chard.
“In tomatoes, some of the interesting varieties we have had that have been very popular are the Goldie tomatoes and the Tom Thumb tomatoes, which is a tiny little tomato you can grow in a pot. Many of our patrons do not have big yards, so growing tomatoes on your porch is a pretty good thing to do,” she said.
Seeds related to pickling were also big last year, Blume said.
“Last year it was all about the pickles. People were really into canning, so they wanted to grow cucumbers and dill,” she said.
Flower seeds are most popular at the Whitefish Bay Library, but patrons also request seeds for herbs and vegetables, Reed said.
Herb seeds available there this year will be basil, chamomile, chives, oregano, parsley and thyme; Vegetables will be lettuce, arugula, beets, carrots, kohlrabi, radishes and yellow pear cherry tomato.
“We don’t want to give away something that needs a lot of maintenance. All the ones we give out are easy to grow. We want people to have a success story,” she said.
In addition to the seed library, the Tippecanoe Library will have a plant and cuttings exchange from May to September, Nimke said. It will be held one Saturday a month.For other dates, check the website closer to the dates.
“This is a new program we are starting. I started it because I recently got into plants like a lot of others have in the last few years and I wanted to share some cuttings,” she said.
Just like library books, seeds kept in circulation find their way into new hearts.
Seed libraries let gardeners get heritage seeds without having to purchase them, said Candy Krepel, a former master gardener who gave a presentation on seed libraries at the Tippecanoe Library in summer 2018.
“And by learning to save seeds they can learn to become more self sufficient” and share their gardening skills with other people, she said.
More resources for seed libraries
Dane County Library Service: Madison. Gives out free seeds and accepts seeds from patrons who grow produce from the seeds they have borrowed. dcls.info/seed-library
Mead Library: Sheboygan: Seed and cutting exchange. meadpl.org/seedlibrary.
Mukwonago Community Library: Has open-pollinated, organic and heirloom seeds. mukwonagolibrary.org/mcl-seed-library.
Seed Savers Exchange: An online site made up of gardeners and seed stewards who share and swap rare seeds. Requires membership. There is a charge for seeds. seedsavers.org.
The Spruce: Information on seed exchanges, books about harvesting seeds. thespruce.com/how-to-get-free-seeds-for-your-garden-1357720
“Seed libraries: And Other Means Of Keeping Seeds In The Hands Of The People”: Book by Cindy Conner. (Amazon, $13 paperback)