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I’d like to say that my journey to a little free seed library began because of my awareness of food systems’ inefficiencies, food insecurity, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ability of folks to acquire resources. After all, I teach a university course on food systems and social justice. But while that would be true, it also wouldn’t be the whole truth. The whole truth is that I’ve always wished to have a little free library, a place for folks to exchange books and ideas, to relax, and to build community. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from many little free libraries as a reader myself and as a mother seeking out books for my littles, especially during the pandemic.
As my family and I settled into our forever home in 2019, I was excited at the opportunity to create a free library in this new place. I even imagined a parklet outside my home where people could sit and rest while reading.
A couple of weeks after we moved in, I met my next-door neighbor, maybe for the second time, out on her lawn. With her husband, she was putting in a little free library. It was a cute, birdhouse-style, stained-wood library, sweet and simple. As I smiled and congratulated her, my heart sank. It wouldn’t make sense to have two adjacent libraries; I knew that immediately.
After the initial disappointment, I regained my determination. So what if it was her library and not mine? I had books to share and a library to share them in – what a wonderful blessing! For weeks, I brought over a couple of books at a time and enjoyed the library myself. However, I still wanted my own.
As one dream faded, the seed of another was planted. I had thought of a seed library before but had dismissed the idea. I was worried about the technicalities and wasn’t confident I could make it work. But now, as I acknowledged that I still needed my own mechanism of sharing, the conditions were right for that old idea to germinate. It first sat on the back shelf of my mind and then slowly crept to the forefront.
In the weeks that followed, I experimented with various ideas, and, finally, it all came together. Now, I’m so fortunate and blessed to live between a little free library and a little seed library. This experience has been a wonderful reminder that little and large disappointments and troubles may indeed be the seeds that allow us to grow stronger, healthier, more confident, more connected, and more capable. Here’s a summary of my journey. Enjoy!
Allowing the Seed to Germinate
I had thought about a seed library before, as I mentioned, but I was nervous about the logistics of it. Could I pull it off? Would it be beneficial to folks? Would it sustain itself like a book library? Would the seeds be ruined by the elements? But, I thought, what’s better than taking on a challenge that could allow people to learn about and grow their own food?
My seed library idea was further nourished by an experience in my food systems course. When the pandemic hit and we went virtual, I had to throw out and replace the community service project I had previously required. Eventually, I settled on an alternative project, where students grow a food item from seed, cook it, and make a recipe video to share. I received so much positive feedback about this new project. The most common feedback was that, although they rarely grew or even cooked food before the pandemic, students found comfort in gaining these skills and sharing food during these hard times.
As I dwelled on the success of that project, I wondered if I could recreate that kind of sharing and skill-building in my community with this little free seed library.
Watering the Seed
I looked for other seed library concepts and found many resources and examples of full-on cataloged libraries, little free seed swaps, and seed baskets. After this research, I was more ready to try designing my own.
I knew I wanted my library to be simple, with limited red tape, and self-sustaining. I also wanted it to have a narrow design, front to back, to make for easy access to seeds and to avoid clutter. It would need a simple way of organizing seeds and a mechanism for moisture control (moisture packets or rice packets behind seed packs). It would also have a section for exchanging non-perishable foods, a pantry. Finally, I wanted the structure to be living! I found examples of various ideas but settled with the simplest.
Budding Ideas and Designs
At first, my dream design was a vintage spice box adapted for a seed library, but after considering a number of options, it seemed that weatherproofing them would be a challenge. So, I decided to shelve the vintage box notion, at least for now.
But just as seedlings are flexible and turn toward their resources, I could pivot also. My good friend tipped me off to Little Free Pantry, a group dedicated to providing pantries of food items in neighborhoods and communities to address food insecurity. They provide information, patterns for box-making, and even resources. They’re based in a city a couple of hours away from me, but it turns out they were willing to provide me materials and assembly instructions. This was more my speed as a first-time builder.
I still wanted to personalize the design with a cool vintage component: vintage drawers. But after visiting numerous vintage malls and seeing enough adorable vintage drawers to make a grown woman cry, I had to ditch the idea.
Besides the undeniable charm of these drawers, there seemed to be no drawer design that guaranteed larger seed and bulb packets wouldn’t get jammed. The only exception was, maybe, a larger and deeper one that was already being used as a cashier drawer at my local vintage shop.
I settled with three wooden craft crates instead. They’re still cute and functional, so I’m happy with the final result.
Once I had my seed drawers, I personalized the pantry design by making it narrower to fit the crates and adding a shelf. I also developed a short bookmark pamphlet with instructions as well as information on the importance of seeds on the back.
Developing Seeds and Connections
As I was assembling and painting my box over a couple of weeks, anxious for the day it would be up and functioning, I was also seeking out seeds to put in the box. I connected with several generous people and organizations to help me with finding the right seeds. Here are a few of them:
Buy Nothing Project and Facebook gardening groups. People are amazingly generous. Most of my seeds came from neighbors I didn’t even know, but they offered to support me. In addition to local Facebook groups, the Buy Nothing Project (www.BuyNothingProject.org) is a place for people to gift things freely to each other in hyperlocal areas and was a great resource to me.
Grow This! Oregon Garden Challenge. The Food Hero program through the Oregon Food Bank and Oregon State University Extension provided seeds and online programming around growing and cooking food items.
Local seed swaps. Folks are doing amazing grassroots organizing. Each time I’ve connected with people about seeds, I’ve grown in knowledge and appreciation of seed and plant people.
My local food bank. The folks at my local food bank said they’d usually have seeds to donate, but they were directing them into other programs during the pandemic. Maybe next year!
Plant nurseries. Another friend tipped me off to obtaining seeds from nurseries. You can call up your local nursery and ask for any extra or recently expired seeds it has.
Local library seed banks. I found a couple of libraries that were donating seeds, but their seed lending was either on hold for the pandemic or they were located farther away. I did suggest to my library the idea of a seed library for the future.
Family and friends. Again, people are generous. I received seeds and starts from folks I knew and folks I didn’t know! I’ve made so many new and amazing connections along this journey.
I also have the most amazing family members who helped me with building, establishing, and maintaining my library.
The Fruits of Success
Once I assembled the library, I put together a simple labeling and categorizing system and hung it up. Within the first week, folks dropped by to take and exchange seeds and canned food. It was working!
The final part of the project was putting together the living component. I experimented with different designs but finally settled on a simple barrel planter system. I used it for starts at first until my mint, basil, thyme, and rosemary plants were ready to take their rightful places potted within the structure.
I wanted to engage people even more around the seed library. So, I hosted a seed-planting event for the kids on the block. Children came by with their planters, sanitized their hands, and then stuck them into the soil! They chose from ‘Painted Mountain’ corn, yellow ‘Janosik’ watermelon, ‘Early Purple’ broccoli, zinnias, multicolored sunflowers from a local seed swap, and many more. They looked at brain-shaped seeds (nasturtium), coiled and barbed seeds (calendula), Manila-envelope-shaped seeds (birdhouse gourd), teeny-tiny seeds (oregano and quinoa), and bean seeds in a variety of shades, from white to speckled-red.
I have more grand plans for engaging my own two beautiful boys and the community in growing, preparing, sharing, and teaching about seeds and food. This was just the beginning!
And the Journey Continues
It’s such a joy to watch seeds being exchanged, cans being added, and to have connections with neighbors about seeds and resources! We did have one minor instance of vandalism, but nothing a quick fix couldn’t remedy. I love stepping out with my coffee to check on the library each morning.
I hope this work inspires more sharing. We all have something that can make our communities better and stronger. What skills, ideas, gifts, or materials do you have to offer your community? I look forward to your thoughts, ideas, and amazing work.
Explore These Seed Resources
Seeds, though small, are incredibly important to our health, communities, and even our political and social systems. You might be surprised how much so. Read about the importance of soil and seeds to our health in Farmacology by Daphne Miller. Learn about the cataclysmic (but unknown to most of us) loss of seed varieties and the market and political monopolies on seeds by chemical and pharmaceutical companies in Seeds of Resistance by Mark Schapiro. And sit down with some popcorn to watch seed keepers’ journeys to protect seed diversity in the 2016 documentary “Seed: The Untold Story.”
Manar Alattar teaches food systems and biology at the University of Portland and Portland Community College, respectively. She encourages students to make their own connections to food and the living world through understanding, interacting with, growing, and eating healthy food.