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Rotary clubs’ free seed libraries yield benefits

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Community seed exchanges increase biodiversity, support endangered pollinators, and even help fight hunger


What’s in a seed? It may be tiny, but a seed can be a powerful tool, as several Rotary clubs have discovered. They’ve created seed libraries where people can get seeds to plant in their gardens and yards at no cost. Now, those communities are reaping substantial rewards.

What they’ve found is that seed libraries do some of the same things regular libraries do: bring people together and encourage learning. Moreover, they increase local biodiversity, support endangered pollinators, and can even help fight hunger.

“I love the community aspect of the seed library. People come in for seeds, and they end up talking,” says Al Hayden, of the Rotary Club of Peabody, Massachusetts, USA. “It’s also an opportunity to show kids that tomatoes don’t actually show up in a little plastic baggie in the grocery store. Getting and planting seeds is a great family-bonding, screen-free activity.”

Hayden’s club donated US$500 to establish seed libraries at three branches of the Peabody Institute Library. The three locations distributed 6,000 packets of seeds this year. Other libraries operate on a smaller scale, like the Little Free Seed Library created last year by the Rotary Club of Wheaton, Illinois, USA. Betsy Adamowski, a member of the club and the executive director of the Wheaton Public Library, got the idea when the library redesigned one of its outdoor spaces.

“We had a beautiful garden put in, and we wanted it to be a learning tool,” says Adamowski, the community service chair for District 6440. She’d heard of libraries repurposing old card catalogs to hold seeds indoors, but she decided to put an outdoor twist on the concept.

She knew several members of her club had built Little Free Libraries: the small, roofed structures near sidewalks or in public places where people leave books for others to borrow. Little Free Libraries have long been a popular Rotary project. “I thought, ‘Instead of a little library, what about a little seed library?’” Adamowski says.

To stock the library, Adamowski and her colleague Courtney Tedrick got free seeds from the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners program. The experts at the Extension helped them to get an assortment that will increase local biodiversity, which supports the broader environment.

Adamowski found several ways to publicize the seed library and highlight Rotary’s role in creating it. When it was installed in the garden, she held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a lunch for Rotary members and others. She also recognized the importance of getting outside help and collaborated with a local gardening organization. It hosted a seed-saving workshop and a seedling exchange and offered guidance about how to maintain the library.

“We were thinking that during the winter we should bring in the seeds. But funnily enough, my seed experts said they’re actually OK [outdoors],” Tedrick says. Seeds need to be kept cool so they don’t grow mold or germinate. So Tedrick has been bringing them indoors during the hottest days of the summer instead.

The Rotary Club of Wheaton, Illinois, USA, started a free seed library in the garden of the local public library.

Sources for seeds

  • Seed Savers Exchange is one place to shop for genetically diverse seeds. Its seed bank includes more than 20,000 varieties. Seed Savers also helps connect seed swappers all over the world. “If you get involved in that community, you’ll find there are a lot of people who are willing to donate seeds,” Gray says. Remember, though, to check with experts in your area about possible concerns regarding invasive species.
  • Seed companies in some countries label seed packets with the year for which they were produced. After that, they are not allowed to sell them, because over time, the percentage of viable seeds decreases. But the seeds are still very likely to grow, so sellers often give them away or offer them at deep discounts.
    Anaistasia Gray, who created one of the Harvest Against Hunger seed libraries, suggests approaching hardware, grocery, and garden stores at the end of the growing season to get inexpensive or free seeds. “I don’t recommend asking big seed distributors,” Gray says, “but those smaller organizations would be a great start.”
  • Many universities have agriculture programs that also may offer free seeds. Find a list of programs in the United States. Or search the internet for “free seeds” and your country name to find giveaways, such as these in the United Kingdom.
  • Gray developed a guide to creating a seed library that you can use to get started.

Seed libraries in some areas discourage users from donating their own seeds, because they might unknowingly spread invasive species. That’s why working with knowledgeable partners is essential, says Sarah Sugden, a member of the Rotary Club of Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA. Her club created a seed library at the Brown County Library, where Sugden is the executive director.

“I’ve definitely appreciated being able to tap into the expertise of people from the Master Gardener Program at the University of Wisconsin, and other local experts,” she says. “We needed seeds that would grow in Wisconsin’s climate. We’ve got a shorter growing season than, say, Alabama.”

Many of the libraries offer the seeds of plants, like sunflowers and milkweed, that are critical for pollinators, such as butterflies and bees. Without these insects, many other plants that people eat can’t produce a harvest, but pollinator populations have declined dramatically because of pesticide use, diseases, and habitat loss.

Besides helping protect the food supply generally, the seed libraries can increase food security for individuals and families. In Seattle, Washington, USA, the nonprofit Harvest Against Hunger, a program of Rotary District 5030, helped establish two seed libraries that enable people who use food banks to grow their own vegetables.

An assessment by one of Harvest Against Hunger’s partners found that providing seeds was really beneficial to people in the community, says the group’s executive director, David Bobanick, who is also a member of the Rotary Club of Seattle.

He says the area has many immigrants who miss the vegetables of their home countries, such as choy sum, bitter gourd, poblano peppers, jalapeño peppers, celtuce, and collards.

“Hunger relief organizations here try to find appropriate foods for all the different groups,” he says. “Finding a way for people to grow culturally familiar foods” is meaningful.

Which seed varieties are the most popular differs by region and even by neighborhood. In Peabody, different seeds are in demand at each of the three branch libraries. That’s because some neighborhoods have more space for planting than others.

“There’s a lot of urban gardening in the main library area, but the south branch has all these one- or two-family houses that have little plots of land,” Hayden says. “This really is something that allows every single resident to do some sort of gardening.”

Learn more about how Rotary members are protecting the environment.

— 21 Aug 2023