Seed Libraries – What they are and why they are important

Those of you who know me are aware that my day job (the one that pays the bills) is at a public library. We have a lot of non-traditional items at our library and at the encouragement of our director, I helped establish a seed library about 3 years ago. Seed libraries have been around for quite a few years but have recently been gaining popularity, with many of them popping up all over the country. Being a gardener myself, I loved the idea of a seed library and wanted to help others get started. I just gave my 4th presentation to a group of librarians at a conference and wanted to share with you.

seed saving library
The seed library at Tamarack District Library where I work. When it is not on display, it is shelved in the nonfiction area near the seed saving books.

Why are Seed Libraries so important?

This part of the presentation is normally given by my “seedy” friend, Ben Cohen. Ben and his wife own a sustainable homestead and sell products that they grown and harvest. He is also a regional coordinator for Gardens Across America, a grow out for seeds, and is an avid seed saver and teacher. Ben is an excellent speaker and gets everyone excited about saving seeds. He is sometimes a hard act to follow! Ben has recently published a book about seeds and it is a must read! There is so much history tied to our food chain and seeds have stories that need to be told. You can find his book on Amazon: From Our Seeds and Their Keepers

Seed saving is an almost lost skill.  So many of us buy our seeds from commercial producers or buy plants already started. Of course the majority of people in the US don’t even grow their own food but buy from the supermarket. Many kids have no idea where their food comes from let alone how to grow the plants from seeds. When you are able to save seeds from your plants from year to year, not only do you save money but your plants will become adapted to your area.

At our library, we have been gifted with seeds from a local woman. When her uncle was a child, his father mail-ordered a small packet of bean seeds for him to grow. The packet cost a penny. Seeds were saved from these plants from the very first year and were passed down to the next generation. These bean seeds have been shared many times over with relatives and friends and are excellent producing plants that have become adapted to our area. We don’t know the original name of these beans so Ben has called them “Penny Packet” beans. Seeds like these have stories that are just begging to be told.

The biggest reason to start a seed library is the seeds themselves. Seeds that can be saved from year to year are open pollinated, not hybrids. Many of these varieties are not suitable for commercial production but have so many great characteristics for the home gardener such as disease resistance and better flavor. There is so much diversity in plants that we may never see and that has already been lost. Over the last 80 years, 90% of varieties that were offered for sale have been lost. Seed libraries and seed banks are working to correct that problem.

How to start a Seed Library

So now you understand the need for saving seeds and would like to start a seed library. A passion for seeds and sharing them is all that is necessary, not actually working in a library. Our motto for the seed library is Select, Sow, Share. Seeds are selected from our collection; they are “checked out” with a library card, then sown in a garden; seeds are saved from the plants and shared back to the library. It’s really that simple.

Seeds first have to be gathered. If you are working in a library or other nonprofit such as a community garden, you are eligible to receive donations from seed companies. Seeds are normally requested in the fall and winter as  you will be receiving seeds from the previous year’s stock. Sometimes a nominal fee will be charged for shipping but it really depends on the company. See below under resources for names of some of the companies that donate every year. Keep in mind that you are looking for open-pollinated varieties, not hybrids.

seed library michigan
This seed library has found an ideal home in an old card catalog.

Many people save seeds and love to share with others. Some of my friends on Instagram are thinking about starting up a seed bank. At the end of the growing season, we will all send them some extra seeds and they will distribute them equally to all who desire some. Just last week I received some melon seeds from another IG friend after I commented on their plants from last year. It’s the sharing that builds a sense of community, even if you live on different ends of the country.

Organizing your seed library

For some people this may be the hardest part. For librarians, we were born for this! We already have a system in place to be organized and allow for sharing. Record keeping is very important since so many seeds can look alike. Make sure you have forms for donations to be received and log everything into a system that you can sustain. We use Microsoft Excel for this. Get as much information as you can about the plants including germination depth, days to harvest, etc. This information will need to be passed on to the next person so they can have a chance at success also.

seed library michigan
Seed packets with labels that can be found on the shelves at our library.

You will need packaging for your seeds because you will be splitting the large packets into smaller ones. We use #1 coin envelopes with labels that we print for each variety. Other options include writing directly on the paper envelopes or using small ziplock bags. It’s fun to sort and stuff seeds on a cold winter night with friends.

We share our seed packets with our local patrons, but if you are considering sharing with others in different locations, be sure to consider costs for larger envelopes and shipping.

seed library michigan
Handwritten seed packets work just as good as their more expensive counterparts.

Resources for seed libraries

Companies that offer donations to non-profits include: Seed Savers Exchange, Annie’s Heirlooms, High Mowing Organic, Nature and Nuture, Baker Creek Heirlooms, Vintage Veggies, Seeds Now, Hudson Valley Seed and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Some have forms that need to be filled out, others require a donation statement or mission statement for your nonprofit.  Look also to your neighboring CSA’s or farming community, community gardens, master gardeners, and stores that sell seed stock.

Recommended reading includes: Seed Libraries: and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of People.

You may not be able to start big, but your seed library will grow over time. One way to stock it is to have a seed garden yourself. Grow out a few varieties of an easy plant to save seeds from such as beans. With just 1 seed, a plant can yield hundreds more seeds that you share with others.

If you ever want to share seeds with me, feel free to contact me. I will be more than happy to swap with you!

seed library michigan

2 thoughts on “Seed Libraries – What they are and why they are important

  1. Thank you for writing this wonderfully informative article! I’m adore how you’ve labeled your seed packets. They look so neat and organized! My garden binder is bursting and I’m looking for a new way to organize my seed collection. This labeling system you have is perfect as I move all my seeds over to a box/bin for safe keeping. Do you mind sharing some information as to which label size you utilized (avery?) and or do you have a pdf to share so my labels will look just like yours? I really do love them. Great job!

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