Seeds of Change: A Seed Library for All Ages

Chris Rogers /

Chris Rogers is Librarian at the Middle Tyger Branch Library, Spartanburg County Public Libraries (SC).

The ancient Chinese proverb says "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." My library, the Middle Tyger Library, a branch of the Spartanburg County (SC) Public Libraries, borrowed some wisdom from this famous adage to be self-sufficient, and started a seed lending library.

I decided to encourage local residents to become novice backyard gardeners. Parents and grandparents could plant seeds to teach basic lessons of science to children growing things in small containers. It all began after I attended a seed library workshop at the annual South Carolina Library Association conference in late 2015. After witnessing the ease with which libraries big and small could set up a seed library, I contacted the staff of the Orangeburg County (SC) Library, the workshop's presenters, to learn more.

Without an estimate of expenses to start a small seed library, I had a lot of questions. How does a library "loan" seeds? How much will this cost? When do you begin distributing seeds to library patrons? How do you decide how many seeds will go into small bags? How long will unused seeds remain viable for the next year?

Depending on how many seeds you purchase from seed catalogs, a seed library can be established with less than two hundred dollars. You need small, resealable plastic bags, seeds, a permanent marker, and 3 or 4 small plastic bins to store seeds for patrons. You can begin loaning seeds in late-January, and can continue right through the growing season. Most flower, herb and vegetable seeds are good for planting for a year, and in some cases two years, after your original purchase. Seed library websites routinely post tables of seed longevity, or viability.

A seed library is, at its most basic level, like a book lending library, though you don’t expect to the get the items back. You decide what you can and will provide, determine the budget and storage logistics, purchase the seeds, and then you maintain and promote the resources. The Middle Tyger Library "loans" a limited number of seed packets to any patron, regardless of age, to grow, eat or donate the harvest to local soup kitchens or neighbors.

The library received financial and in-kind support from the library’s Friends group, the Spartanburg Soil & Water Conservation District, and seed companies. The response was encouraging. The Friends group and the Soil & Water Conservation District donated enough funds to purchase seeds for the first year. It became clear that people and organizations will support your project if your goals are clearly stated, and the benefit to your community is significant. Planting vegetables in one’s back yard in containers and small plots is a good thing. Teaching residents that eating homegrown, wholesome food is beneficial for a healthy community! And, growing seeds is not that difficult when basic growing information is provided. Many libraries schedule master gardeners or county extension agents to teach the basics of growing plants; be sure that educational resources are part of your plan.

In recent years, seed libraries have literally “sprung up” everywhere. The Orangeburg County Library bought seeds and placed these in a lobby display with brochures explaining details. Also, library staff promoted the free flower and vegetable seeds to their patrons at service desks. Soon, kids and adults were taking seeds home to begin their living experiments. The response at Orangeburg County and Middle Tyger Libraries has been amazing. Middle Tyger Library placed our first order online for seeds in January 2016, purchasing from Hudson Valley Seed in upstate New York. Then another order from Park Seed Company in Greenwood, SC arrived within days. The first day for the new seed library was March 2, 2016.

Once your first shipments of seeds arrive, it is time to sort and bag seeds. This work can be done by volunteers, master gardeners, or Friends who have an interest in gardening. Simply recruit 3 or 4 teens or adults to sort the seeds for you. Each seed bag is hand-labeled with a permanent marker with the seed name, and name of the supplier. Finally, staple basic growing information on the back of each envelope. Post a clipboard with a sign out sheet near the bins.

In the eight months that the library loaned seeds, over 125 families and individuals took seeds home to plant. A half dozen patrons donated seeds for others to plant. Nonprofit groups focusing on healthy lifestyles and nutrition stopped by to see the books, seed bins, and literature on display for growers.  

In 2017, we made a few improvements to the program. The seed library kicked off in late-January, about 6 weeks earlier. Seed bins were separately labeled for flowers, herbs, and vegetables. The library is now working with the local high school Future Farmers club to promote home seed growing as a viable way to supplement the family food budget, sustain the environment and get outdoors! And, volunteers are being recruited to teach classes and restock seed bins.

Libraries are famous for loaning things like power tools, fishing poles and tackle, story time kits with books and puppets grouped by themes, bicycles, art, and lawn care equipment. So, why not seeds?

Growing plants from seeds is the ultimate program for all ages. It doesn’t cost much after the first seeds are purchased in bulk. Maintenance is as easy as restocking seed packets and literature. Plus, you may decide to plant seeds in a small plot for a community garden, or in pots near the entrance to show off the seeds offered at your library. Planted seeds promote the program at little cost to the library as they grow, so, voila! Marketing is a snap. For you recyclers, seeds may be grown in virtually any container, such as old buckets, shoes, hay bales, or pots and pans. What’s not to love?

So, add a seed library to your library’s program line-up for the year. The positive impact on your community will be limited only by your imagination and passion.

Read about other seed library examples and resources in Growing Library Garden Programs.

Photo credit: Andrew Huff, via Flickr