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What is a Seed Library and How Does it Work?

Shade cloth in greenhouse

Last night at my local public library, I volunteered to help package seeds for their Seed Library. We filled a couple of baskets with seed packets of squash, sunflowers, tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, more vegetables, herbs, and flowers. (One year they had 29 varieties of tomatoes!)

So what is a seed library? It’s simply a place where you can “check out” seeds for free. The seeds come from the backyards of local gardeners who collect, save, and donate seeds in the Fall, and from companies that donate seeds. My library does not require a library card to check out seeds.

The idea of public seed libraries has been gaining momentum in the past few years. In fact, there are over 600 seed libraries in the United States. Of course, saving and sharing seeds with your community isn’t new, but more and more places are starting organized efforts to offer saved seeds.

How does a seed library work? Seeds are counted and packaged into small envelopes that can be checked out. There’s usually a limit of how many envelopes and varieties each person can take. At my library you can check out 20 envelopes and there’s a limit of 2 envelopes per variety. Growing information is printed on the packets, just like you’d find at a store.

Do you have to “return” seeds? If you’re new to gardening, seed libraries don’t want you to worry about harvesting and “returning” seeds to the library in the Fall. They want you to concentrate your time and efforts on growing and harvesting - and having fun! If you’re an experienced gardner and you have a plentiful harvest, consider donating seeds for the next season.

In addition to being free, here’s what’s awesome about getting seeds from a seed library. First, you have the chance to get unique heirloom and local varieties from folks that having been gardening for years. (My library has some “soup bean” seeds from the garden of a beloved community member who is no longer with us.) Second, fewer seeds are wasted. Many of us don’t need a whole seed packet of seeds; the seed library makes small packets suitable for a home garden.

Each seed library will specify what seeds they will accept. Mine states that donated seeds must be from open-pollinated, non-genetically modified, non-hybrid, and/or heirloom plants. The plants cannot be listed as invasive species.

Last night at the library’s “Seed Packaging Party”, twenty-five of us carefully counted, measured, and packaged donated seeds into small envelopes. I worked on counting four varieties of broccoli seeds, putting 10-12 seeds in each packet. Just enough for a row in a home garden or a few squares in a raised bed. Tiny seeds were measured with a measuring spoon. The librarians will print and label each new packet and they’ll be ready for check out in mid-March. It was a lovely evening; as we packaged, we listened to music and chatted about our gardens. 🙂

I hope you have a seed library near you.

To find one, check at your local public library or community center. And if you don’t find one, check another city near you!

For more information on seed saving, check out Seed Savers Exchange and Save Seeds.



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