Take a seed, give a seed.
In a twist on penny cups at cash registers, folks at the Little Turtle branch of the Allen County Public Library are hoping to encourage urban gardening with a new feature – a seed library.
Housed in a recycled card catalog at the branch at 2201 Sherman Blvd., the seed library contains packets of seeds for the taking from what’s likely to become scores of heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers.
The idea, branch Director Carla Bauman says, is for people to check out the seeds and plant them in their home gardens. Then, she says, "We ask that you let one or two plants go to seed and bring back the seeds so we can add them to the library."
Taking up to eight packages of seeds is free for anyone, not just library cardholders, she says.
The library also is offering free monthly sessions staffed by master gardeners and others through May on gardening topics, including information about how to start seeds.
Sessions will take place 2 to 4 p.m. the fourth Saturday of the month. The next session Feb. 27 will provide information on bees and beekeeping. No registration is required.
The seeds for the project, Bauman says, were sown when the library got a donation from Fort Wayne native and award-winning author Michael Martone in memory of his late mother, Patricia, a frequent branch patron who died in 2012.
"We were looking for something different, and we wanted the best use for the money," Bauman says. After she was put in touch with Michele Berkes-Adams, active in the Fort Wayne chapter of Food Not Lawns, a plan to assist those who wanted to grow their own nutritious food cheaply took root.
Bauman says she believes the seed library is the first of its kind in northern Indiana and one of probably less than a half-dozen in the state.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, that advocates on behalf of seed libraries, says the number of libraries has grown from about a dozen in 2010 to more than 300 today, although it’s not known how many of them are in public libraries.
One of the first, Richmond Grows Seed Library, was at the public library in Richmond, California.
Sari Feldman, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association, says that as libraries grow beyond books to offer "libraries of things" for community members to share, seed libraries are proliferating.
"It’s part of a trend of libraries really facing outward to their communities and asking, ‘What are the ways we can share materials in our communities based on community needs?’ It’s everything from telescopes to cake pans that libraries are sharing."
At Little Turtle, master gardeners were enlisted to help repackage bulk seeds from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. into manageable sizes for home use.
The library chose heirloom varieties of seeds because, unlike seeds of hybrid plants, heirloom seeds breed true.
That means that seeds produced from plants grown from the seeds will produce the same plant in the next generation.
Many gardeners have seen hybrid tomatoes’ seeds produce plants with tiny cherry-style tomatoes the next year instead of larger fruit.
The seed library has dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, Bauman says.
"We already have two drawers full of tomatoes," she said.
She added all the seeds are organic, which means they will do best with organic fertilizer such as compost or may not need to be fertilized, depending on soil fertility.
Last Monday morning, as snowflakes flew, master gardener volunteer Chris Knipstein was sorting tiny seeds for mini red peppers into piles for packaging with a paper clip. He was working at a table in the library’s back office with fellow volunteer Glenn Hile, a retired plant breeder for a seed company and soon-to-be master gardener.
The two Fort Wayne men shared tips as they worked – how seeds can be started by placing containers of soil and seed on top of the refrigerator for warmth until the seeds sprout; how two crops can be raised on one plot by planting asparagus and strawberries together; and which plants (tomatoes, potatoes and peppers) do best started indoors to give them a head start on their long growing season.
"Probably the best resource (on seed starting) is if you Google the Purdue Extension," Knipstine says, noting that the site, at hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-14.pdf, has indoor seed-starting tables for this area for a wide variety of flowers and vegetables.
Upcoming weeks are the best time for starting seeds indoors, he says, adding that young plants can be planted outside after the danger of frost is past, typically around May 10.
Bauman says reaction to the seed library has been remarkable. About 30 people attended preliminary meetings, and about a dozen already have checked out seeds, she says. And patrons have remarked how progressive the library is in encouraging local food production, library staff members say.
Given other libraries’ experience, the return rate on seeds should be about 25 percent, Bauman says. However, she says the staff likely will not police the seed library’s users – no overdue seed fines.
There’s more money in the branch’s donation fund for seeds if supplies run low, she says.
Bauman hopes the project can be expanded to other branches, including the Hessen Cassel branch, where there is a community garden program.
"Our goal is to provide seeds and education to the community to promote urban gardening, but we’re also promoting self-reliance and good, nutritional food," Bauman says.
"But I think a byproduct of that is we’re creating community – a new community of gardeners in our community that cuts across all ages and demographic areas."