Want to plant a garden? Gordon Avenue Library is giving away seeds

A close-up of a library bookshelf. On top of the shelf is a plastic container that says "Little Seed Library," with drawings of carrots, lettuce, and cucumbers around it.

An embroidery kit. Fitness equipment. A blood pressure cuff. Books (of course).

These are all things members of the local library system can check out from the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library catalog.

Now, they can get cucumbers, carrots, basil, and zinnias, too… in seed form.

With the help of the Piedmont Master Gardeners, the Gordon Avenue Library launched The Little Seed Library in April, during its annual plant swap. Already, more than 40 people have taken seeds, and 10 have donated seeds they’ve saved from their own gardens.

As with everything in the public library system, the Little Seed Library is free to use — but people who take the seeds home don’t have to bring them back.

It’s also more community-run than a typical library program, with opportunities for patrons to share seeds they’ve saved, as well as gardening tips and tricks.

The idea for a seed library came from library patrons themselves, said Camille Thompson, branch manager of the Gordon Avenue Library in Charlottesville. People kept asking for one.

“We’re always being flexible, trying to figure out what the community’s interested in, and provide that,” said Thompson.

The Little Seed Library is one of likely hundreds of seed sharing programs based in public libraries, according to a 2022 report in Civil Eats. While these programs date back to at least 2010, they became more popular, and more widespread, during the pandemic, when fears of food scarcities pushed more people to try to grow their own food.

In the past couple of years, there was enough interest from library patrons that Charlottesville’s local library staff decided to dig in and sow one of their own.

More about gardening

But the librarians only know so much about plants and seeds, said Britt Ford, JMRL’s young adult librarian who spearheaded the Little Seed Library project. “It’s a green leaf, that’s all I know,” she said, laughing.

However, like all good librarians, Ford knew where to find the information she needed, and that patrons craved.

She researched seed libraries in other communities, from the large one housed in an old card catalog at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, to smaller ones in public libraries throughout the country.

She also consulted the Piedmont Master Gardeners, experts on what to grow in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, how to grow it, and when.

The Piedmont Master Gardeners have many years of experience and training on gardening in this area. They’re trained and certified by the American Horticultural Society to educate their community on all things plant-related, from what grows well in this climate to vermicomposting (introducing live earthworms to a compost pile to enrich the soil).

The group advised starting off with carrot, cucumber, zinnia and basil seeds. All of those crops, which are fairly easy to grow from seed in both container and in-ground gardens, and can be planted now (in May) for harvest later in the year.

As the seasons change, so will the seeds in the Little Seed Library. Whatever is in the box at any given time is suitable for planting during that season.

When someone wants to use the Little Seed Library, they can visit the Gordon Avenue Library, fill out a seed library membership form and give it to a staff member. There’s a log book for patrons to fill out which seeds they’re taking or donating. No need to bring an envelope of seeds up to the circulation desk to be checked out — none of the seed packets are barcoded. It’s all done via the binder and the honor system.

The Master Gardeners helped create a variety of resources for the seed library, too, including instructions on how to start and then plant the seeds, and growing tips for each individual crop. Different plants need different amounts of water, sunlight, and fertilizer and soil. They also run a horticultural help desk that people can call (434-872-4583) or email albemarlevcehelpdesk [AT] gmail [DOT] com with any gardening questions.

The library ordered seeds in bulk to start, but it’s also taking seed donations. Patrons are particularly interested in native and heirloom seeds, though they’re often harder to grow and more expensive.

“But luckily, we’ve had patrons go, ‘Oh, I have those seeds. Let me donate them to you,'” said Ford.

“We’re thinking that once we grow the collection that comes in from the community, we can add more native things in that way,” added Thompson.

People can also indicate on their membership form their level of experience with gardening and if they’d like to volunteer their time to count and package seeds and other tasks related to maintaining and growing the seed library.

“The goal is for it to be more community-run, community-based,” said Ford.

The library is beefing up its catalog offerings to support this endeavor, adding more books on growing things from seed, gardening and even seed-saving.

Thompson and Ford don’t expect the Little Seed Library to grow in size overnight. Instead, they’re working with the Piedmont Master Gardeners on educational programs the library can host — like the gardening version of a book club.

The Little Seed Library could make its way to other branches in the JMRL system too, if things go well at Gordon Avenue.

“We’re hoping it connects people to information and resources for continuing the tradition of saving and growing things from seed. And that it gives people access to the joy of gardening and builds community amongst people who love to grow things, or people who want to learn how,” said Thompson.

“And to know that they’re not alone in trying to do this,” said Ford.