Amid growing interest in eating locally, a handful of state libraries are helping residents develop their green thumbs by allowing patrons to check out more than just books.
Seed-sharing libraries are simple in concept and practice. Patrons are able to take heirloom seeds from the library, plant them in their gardens and then return to the library at the end of the season with seeds generated by the plant that grew from the original seed.
The first public library to implement the program was the La Crosse Public Library in February, which embarked on the practice after a year of research, planning and offering workshops to educate patrons on plant and seed requirements.
Kelly Becker, who coordinates the seed program, attributes the library’s success to people who are “starting to think about where our food is coming from and local food initiatives.”
Since its launch, La Crosse’s seed library has shared more than 600 packets of seeds.
“There has been a lot of interest,” Becker said. “We were almost overwhelmed at first.”
At least three other Wisconsin libraries — Caestecker Public Library in Green Lake, Lawton Memorial Library in La Farge and Wonewoc Public Library in Juneau County — have a similar seed-sharing library, said Martha Van Pelt, director of the South Central Library System. Van Pelt said she is sure there are more.
The Mount Horeb Public Library hopes to open a seed-sharing library next spring.
Jessica Williams, Mount Horeb library director, said the exchange program reflects the area’s agrarian roots.
“I felt it fit into the community perfectly,” Williams said. “There is still that small-town feeling here, and I feel it fits within that community.”
The library plans to start educating patrons this fall on how to grow and care for the seeds, then gear up for its first season of seed sharing by the start of the planting season.
Williams said she doesn’t know how many seeds the library will share or whether they’ll be donated or purchased by the library. One source the library is considering is Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based nonprofit that seeks to conserve endangered food crops by growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
“The idea is a seed itself; it has to grow,” Williams said.
The Madison Public Library system also is looking into whether a seed-sharing library might be sustainable, said Michael Spelman, Goodman South branch supervisor.
“This is an area that could be of interest,” Spelman said, adding that he likes the concept but wants to make sure it can succeed while keeping up other programs.
“This is one more new thing you might be doing. Can we do that well right now?” Spelman asked. “We really want to try and knock it out of the park, and that’s how you do something successful.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version misstated the number of seeds the La Crosse Public Library has shared with patrons. Since its launch, the seed library has shared more than 600 packets of seeds.]