18 October 2021
A photo of a free-standing card catalog and small table. The card catalog is filled with seed packets for library card holders to use in their home gardens.

The fall season may seem like an odd time to think about gardening, but it is the perfect time of year to start a Seed Library.  

A Seed Library is a collection of herb, flower, fruit, and vegetable seeds that are available for “check-out”. Library card holders are invited to “borrow” free seeds at the library, plant them, and then harvest the new seeds to return to the library at the end of the growing season. Housed in an old card catalog, the Seed Library at the Vespasian Warner Public Library District (VWPLD) in Clinton, Illinois has been used to borrow over 2,000 packets of seeds since it was started in 2015.

Dig In Starting a Seed Library can be simple.

  • Gather the Seeds: Libraries can source seeds from garden companies, local gardening clubs, or local business donations (more on that later).
  • Decide on Storage: Many libraries use old card catalogs to hold and organize seed packets, but a basket or set of narrow containers will work just fine.
  • Track Usage: The VWPLD uses a special Quick-Circ record to track all Seed Library “check-outs”. Quick-Circ item records allow libraries to circulate and collect statistics for items that are not intended for full cataloging.

Budding Community Partnerships A Seed Library can also create an opportunity to form new community relationships. VWPLD staff noticed that the Seed Library need to be refreshed in the spring of 2021. Local businesses such as Tractor Supply Company, Ace Hardware, Dollar General, and more were eager to help with donations of leftover seeds packets that weren’t sold during the previous growing season. Library staff now plan to connect with them each fall for ongoing donations. Additional partners to make this project possible include the Friends of Warner Library and the Neighborhood Care Center. 

Tender Loving Care & Maintenance The VWPLD completes an inventory of the Seed Library on an annual basis. Seeds that are several years past the expiration date are removed from the collection and wish lists are created for popular seeds that need to be replenished.

Recent updates to the VWPLD Seed Library include a variety of gardening resources. Reference copies of the Smithsonian Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and The New Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit: An Illustrated Encyclopedia are available for browsing. Library card holders may also use public computers to print up to ten pages of planting information for free from popular gardening websites. 

Branching Out The VWPLD has used its Seed Library as the basis for a variety of other programs and looks forward to trying out new ideas in the future.

  • Programming: The VWPLD has connected the Seed Library to gardening programs like Seed Starting 101, Composting with Confidence, Herb Gardening, Pollinators in the Garden, and more. Oftentimes, the library partners with the local University of Illinois Extension Office for their expert knowledge and presentations.
  • Seeds by Mail: During the stay-at-home order in 2020, library card holders could request a surprise assortment of free flower, herb, vegetable, or combo packets to be mailed to their home just in time for the spring planting season.
  • Seed Challenge: The VWPLD discovered several packets of seeds that expired three to four years ago during a recent inventory. Rather than throwing them away, staff challenged library card holders to plant the seeds and see if they grew! Several participants were successful and produced items like glass corn and strawberry corn.
  • Clever Combos: Take the guesswork out of garden planning for Seed Library users! Clever Combos were offered as packets of seeds that had been grouped into special categories for easy planting. Combos featured groupings such as salsa ingredients, flowers for cutting, pollinator plants, and more.

Libraries interested in starting a Seed Library are encouraged to contact the VWPLD for more information by phone at 217-935-5174 or by email at library@vwarner.org. Happy planting!