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Borrowers Grow Now, Pay Back Later

  • Some of the seeds at Windsor Public Library. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Some of the seeds at Windsor Public Library. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lisa Richards of Windsor proposed establishing a seed library to encourage people to grow their own food. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Lisa Richards of Windsor proposed establishing a seed library to encourage people to grow their own food. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Windsor Public Library is starting what is likely the first seed library in the Upper Valley. Farmer and Master Gardener Lisa Richards of Mack Hill Farm in Windsor was behind the idea. Here, Richards holds a flat of celery plants she had started from seed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Windsor Public Library is starting what is likely the first seed library in the Upper Valley. Farmer and Master Gardener Lisa Richards of Mack Hill Farm in Windsor was behind the idea. Here, Richards holds a flat of celery plants she had started from seed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Some of the seeds at Windsor Public Library. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Lisa Richards of Windsor proposed establishing a seed library to encourage people to grow their own food. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Windsor Public Library is starting what is likely the first seed library in the Upper Valley. Farmer and Master Gardener Lisa Richards of Mack Hill Farm in Windsor was behind the idea. Here, Richards holds a flat of celery plants she had started from seed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

If there’s a common link between gardens and libraries, it’s that they offer rich and inexpensive environments for growth.

Tomorrow, when the Windsor Public Library opens a seed library with an evening potluck and information session, the union of cultivation of the mind and the soil will get a little tighter.

Starting this week, the library will offer hundreds of seed packets to gardeners. Any card-carrying member of the Windsor Public Library can sign out as many as five packets to plant in their gardens, with the proviso that they must let one plant of each variety they grow go to seed, then harvest those seeds to return to the library.

Lisa Richards, a longtime farmer who moved to Windsor last fall, pitched the idea to Librarian Barbara Ball. They received donations of seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., and from the University of Rhode Island’s Free Seeds Program, which Ball is cataloging in preparation for loaning them to library patrons.

“Even if all you have is a balcony you can grow some of your own food,” Richards said. New England grows only around 10 percent of the food it consumes, an amount Richards called “shockingly low.”

Collecting seeds from plants at the end of the growing season is an idea as old as agriculture itself. But with the advent of seed catalogs, even dedicated gardeners and farmers buy new seed each spring, Richards said.

“They don’t even know how to save seeds any more,” she said.

Ongoing education will be a key aspect of the seed library. Richards plans to teach workshops on gardening and seed collection. The methods for seed collection are low-tech, but not always intuitive. For example, broccoli seeds are the size of salt grains, so the best way to harvest them is to tie some pantyhose around the plant, then collect the seeds from inside the pantyhose.

Richards and her husband, Frank, moved to Windsor in November after 22 years running Mack Hill Farm in Marlow, N.H., just north of Keene. They raised pigs, sheep and fowl as well as vegetables. After moving from their 300-acre farm to a rented 15-acre plot on Route 44 in Windsor, they are concentrating on raising and selling rare Icelandic chickens and plan to grow vegetables for sale at farmers markets.

As a certified Master Gardener, Richards has to provide volunteer services. That’s what led her to offer to start the seed library, she said.

The idea of a seed library is relatively new, and there aren’t many of them.

In Vermont, Warren Public Library has started a seed library, said Martha Reid, state librarian. Other public libraries have held seed exchanges, and the Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library lends out gardening tools, said Reid, who thinks seed libraries could catch on in Vermont.

“That’s something that could be replicated across the state,” Reid said in a phone interview.

One of the earliest seed libraries is the Hudson Valley Seed Library, founded in 2004, and the idea has flourished on the West Coast, particularly in Richmond, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The seed library fits in with a public library’s overall mission to provide information to its members, said Ball, a Springfield, Vt., native who moved back to Vermont in October.

“It’s all about the library’s goal of being the center of the community,” she said.

The development of seed libraries is also a counterweight to a prevailing trend in agriculture: Huge agribusiness companies take out patents on seeds, making it illegal for farmers to save seeds from one year’s crop to plant the following year.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a suit brought by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, against an Indiana farmer who bought soybeans from a nearby grain elevator to plant a late-season crop on some of his 300 acres. Those beans contained some of Monsanto’s patented “Roundup Ready” technology, which allows a field to be sprayed with Roundup, a commercial herbicide, without harming the soybean plants.

A seed library takes the opposite tack, providing seeds at little or no cost to gardeners and farmers every spring. A library card at the Windsor Public Library is free to Windsor residents and costs $10 a year for people who live in other towns.

“I think seeds are a public property,” Richards said.

As a result, the seed library accepts donations of seeds that are not “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, and that are not patented or copyrighted. In Ball’s office last week were boxes of seed packets she was cataloging: “Polka Dot Mix bachelors buttons,” zinnias, lettuces, and Swiss chard, Chioggia beets and Midori Giant soy beans, all awaiting someone with a library card and a patch of turned earth.

Over time, the library will become a reservoir of knowledge about what grows well in local soil, Richards said.

“Gardeners get it, and think ‘What a cool idea,’ ” Richards said. “I’m trying to tell everybody ‘Just grow it.’ ”

Windsor Public Library opens its seed library with a garden-themed potluck and open mic tomorrow evening at 7.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.