If you’re a fan of garden-related quotes, you may have already run across this gem from Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit,” usually translated as “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” That version is spot-on for many of us who enjoy books and plants with equal passion. The more literal translation of hortum in bibliotheca—a garden in a library—lends itself to some very interesting interpretations, including the one that has captured my interest recently: the concept of a “seed library.”
I’m sure that some of you, at least, must already be familiar with the concept of a seed library, but I have to admit that until last week, I’d never known such a thing existed. And now, I wonder how it is that we don’t all know about this brilliant idea: essentially, making seeds available through public libraries, so patrons can choose the ones they find of interest, take them home to grow, and then return seeds to the library at the end of the growing season.
There’s nothing new about the concept of sharing seeds, of course. Gardeners have been trading seeds informally for as long as there have been gardens, and more recently, through structured programs as well. A fair number of national and international horticultural organizations and plant societies, for instance, have seed exchanges, through which members can request seeds that are donated by other members.
Seed exchanges are fantastic resources for people who appreciate specialized seeds, such as heirloom flower and vegetable varieties and rare and unusual species and selections of their favorite plants. Gardeners who regularly participate in seed exchanges tend to do so with a passion, setting aside time in their gardening year for seed collecting, seed cleaning, seed ordering, and possibly even volunteering to help fill others’ orders. (Donating a certain amount of seed or volunteering to help often entitles you to extra packets and increases the chance that you’ll get your first picks: significant incentives for being an active participant!)
By their nature, seed exchanges tend to reach a somewhat limited audience: folks who are members of those organizations, who have the time to pore over seed lists (which frequently arrive right around the Christmas holiday) and fill out their request forms right away, and who are willing to wait weeks or months to see what they actually get.
Seed swaps, where gardeners get together in person to share their favorite seeds, tend to be free and open to anyone who wants to attend. They can be as informal as a handful of coworkers getting together to trade seeds at lunchtime or as organized as a community-wide event complete with check-in tables, gift bags, raffles, and lectures. Did you know that we have a National Seed Swap Day in the U.S., on the last Saturday of January? It’s an officially-recognized holiday, thanks to the efforts of Kathy Jentz, the publisher and editor of Washington Gardener magazine. She even has a blog for the event—National Seed Swap Day—which includes information on how to set up a seed-sharing event. You can also find handy swapping tips at How to Host a Seed Swap.
In-person swaps are much-anticipated events for gardeners who enjoy social activities as well as educational opportunities. Participants get to share first-hand knowledge about the seeds they bring and about their gardening experiences in general. It’s also a good way to find seeds that are well adapted to your local conditions: If other gardeners in your area can raise certain plants from seed to seed, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to succeed with them too. You may also be able to find seeds with local historical significance, such as heirloom vegetable varieties that were developed in your area. The only real disadvantage is that you need to be free to attend on the day of the swap, or you’ll miss out on all the fun.
That brings us back to the idea of a seed library. It combines some of the best features of both seed exchanges and seed swaps—a wide variety of packed and labeled seeds, from local sources—and makes the seeds readily available at any time (well, whenever the library is open), in a calm, quiet environment that’s conducive to browsing and thinking. That’s a great benefit for folks who can’t handle the busy, noisy environment of an in-person swap, as well as new gardeners who may be intimidated by the intensity of experienced swappers. Plus, there are book and computer resources right at hand if you want to do some research on the seeds you’re interested in before you take them home. Libraries are already set up for educational events, so they can also host workshops and meetings where interested patrons can learn hands-on seed-saving skills from other successful gardeners throughout the year.
There are already several hundred seed libraries established all over the world. If you want to see if there’s already one near you, check out the map here: Seed Library Locator. Didn’t find one? Consider working with your local library to start one! It would be a great project for Master Gardeners, 4-H groups, garden clubs, or a bunch of seed-crazy home gardeners who want to get other people hooked on the fun of seed-saving and seed-sharing. To find out more, here are two great places to start: Seed Libraries: Start a Library and The Seed Library Social Network.
Of course, there’s still the time-honored tradition of sharing and trading seeds one-on-one with other gardeners. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing through my blog for the last few years, sending out many hundreds of packets each fall and receiving delightful new treasures from many of you in return. This year, unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to do that. The reason is good news from my perspective: As soon as I polish up and submit the manuscript for the container-combinations book that Rob Cardillo and I have been working on for the last two years, I’m diving right into a book I’ve been longing to write for a while now, on perennial combinations. It’ll be due next spring, though, which means that I’m not going to be able to set aside a whole month’s worth of time this fall to handle a big giveaway.
I’ll still be listing small amounts of seeds in my Etsy shop as I get them cleaned and packed over the next few months, and I’m pondering a couple of ways I can combine that with a special thank-you for those of you who visit here regularly. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to give seed saving a try and then check out some other opportunities out there for sharing seeds gardener-to-gardener.
- Get organized. Join a plant society or other horticultural organization with an established seed exchange, or look for established seed swaps or seed libraries in your area. (Or, start one!)
- Explore a forum. Many online gardening forums have a place for participants to offer and request seeds, and there are also some sites set up specifically for trading. These include GardenWeb, The National Gardening Association, GardenStew, and Plantswap.net, to name just a few free options.
- Make the offer. If you have a blog, you don’t have to do a free-for-all giveaway of many different seeds. Instead, make up just a couple of packets from your favorite plants and offer them to the first readers who leave a request on one of your posts.
This is a great time of year to think about seed saving for seed sharing, because so many seeds are starting to ripen now, and there will be more and more over the next few months. If you’re new to seed saving, you don’t need much to get started. My own seed-collecting kit is very basic: brown paper lunch bags and junk-mail envelopes, a pair of garden scissors, and a few pens and pencils for labeling, all kept in a basket that I can grab easily any time I’m ready to harvest. Once seeds start ripening, I usually spend 10 or 15 minutes collecting whatever I can find once or twice a week.
It does take a bit of experience to figure out exactly what’s worth collecting, how to know it’s ready, and sometimes, how to tell where exactly the seed is. If you’re new to the process, I recommend reading Sally Roth’s article on the basics of seed collecting on the Fine Gardening site: Collecting and Storing Seeds.
It’s ideal if you can collect just the seeds, but usually you’ll end up with other stuff as well: stems, bits of leaves, dead petals, and the like. Some people are pretty casual about cleaning their seeds, picking out just the biggest bits of debris, while others are meticulous about getting rid of every bit of chaff. I tend to be in the latter group, just because I enjoy the cleaning process (I’m taking about seeds only, here—not housework!). While proper cleaning is a must if you want to participate in most formal seed exchanges, I’ve sown plenty of gift seeds that included a fair bit of chaff and have gotten fine results. Personally, I’d rather see people collect seeds and do a basic job of cleaning than fuss at them for leaving a bit of chaff and turn them off from the process altogether, but different folks have different standards.
Like my collecting kit, most of my seed-cleaning kit is pretty basic: a white ceramic dish, a few inexpensive art brushes, and the lid from a plastic storage box to catch debris and dropped seeds as I’m working. You can do a good bit of basic cleaning just with those tools. Dump some collected seeds on the dish, pick out the biggest debris with your fingers, use a few puffs of air to gently blow off some of the lighter stuff as you jiggle the plate, and use a brush to fish out some of the remaining bits of chaff.
When you get more into seed saving, you’ll find it very handy to acquire a set of sieves. You can start with things you already have, such as colanders and tea strainers, but once you try a proper set of graduated sieves, you’ll be amazed how much more quickly the cleaning process can go. Ideally, you want at least two sieves—one with openings that are just a bit larger than the seeds, so the seeds will pass through and the bigger chaff will get caught. Then you use one with holes that are slightly smaller than the seeds, so the seeds stay in the sieve and the dust falls through. The more sieves you have to choose from, the closer you can get to nicely clean seed in just two steps.
For a long time I used a set of soil sieves I’ve had since college. The clay sieve is too small to be useful, but the sand and silt sieves, along with the collecting dish, are handy for basic cleaning of a variety of garden seeds. Even better is a proper set of six or more sieves with different mesh sizes (like these beauties: Seed Cleaning Screens), but they can get really expensive.
This year, I found another nifty option: a “diamond sieve set” or “stone sieve set.” It’s a small metal cylinder with a removable metal cap at each end, with 23 metal sieve plates that fit inside. The numbered plates have holes ranging in size from about 1 mm on the smallest up to 4.5 mm on the largest: sizes well suited for cleaning many garden seeds, if you don’t happen to have a large quantity of diamonds that need sorting.
The whole cylinder is small enough to hold in one hand. You can’t clean a huge amount of seed at one time, but you can do many small batches quite quickly. With a bit of practice, you can pick out the right two plates and get clean seed in just a minute or two. And, it’s super easy to store when you’re not using it. You can find a diamond sieve set for around $50 from many online jewelry-supply stores and specialty tool suppliers, such as this one on Amazon: Sorting Sieves.
When you’re ready to package your cleaned seed for sharing, you have several options:
- Handmade envelopes. A few years ago, I did a post on how to make your own folded packets: Origami for Seed-Savers.
- Pre-made paper envelopes. Office-supply stores usually carry small paper packets, such as#1 envelopes (also known as coin envelopes), like these: Coin/Small Parts Envelopes.
- Reclosable plastic bags. If you don’t mind using plastic, small poly bags—such as these on Amazon—are a handy and inexpensive choice.
- Glassine envelopes. Many seed exchanges like these, and so do I. I use the kind sold by the North American Rock Garden Society: Glassine Envelopes.
Have I tempted you to give seed saving a try? I really hope so! Gather some of those seedheads that you were just going to snip off anyway and start sharing some of your own favorite plants with other gardeners. And, to get back to the original point of this post, have any of you ever visited or used a seed library in your community? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience.