Sun Ray Library now 'lending' seeds

Sun Ray Library is the go-to place for borrowing books, movies and even digital eReaders in its community. And now it can boast a more organic lending service - it has a seed library.

Local youth environmental program volunteers from Conservation Corps have funded and launched a seed library, a sort of free local seed stockpile, on June 2. Residents can come to the seed library for a wide variety of heirloom seeds for their personal or community gardens. At the end of the growing season, the seed library asks its patrons to return a few seeds provided by their new plants to restock the collection.

Though only open for less than two weeks, the seed library appears to be a success.

"So far, there has been some interest in the library and people have been singing out seeds," said Sun Ray Library associate Margo Bock.

In fact, some of the seeds, like the hot Thai peppers, have already run out, said librarian Terry Giinther. But it's only momentary. Conservation Corps crew members restock the seed collection often.

The seed library will run through the summer and includes a gardening education element as well.

Addressing a need

"They wanted a program that they could share with the community," Giinther said.

Conservation Corps pitched the idea to Sun Ray Library because the youth project group identified a need for urban farming in the nearby community, explained Noah DeLong, Conservation Corps crew member and youth co-leader.

There are many low-income households in the neighborhood, which means there is a big need for affordable, nutritious food, he said. The concept of the seed library is also tied to the goal of community building and peace-making through community gardening.

"I think they have a lot of good ideas about community involvement, the environment and community conservation," Bock said.

By bagging groceries at Cub Foods, the youth project group raised enough money to purchase 20 different varieties of seeds, including corn, tomatoes, Asian greens, okra, broccoli, collard greens, squash, melons and even Thai hot pepper.

At the June 2 kickoff, Conservation Corps handed out seedlings since the seed library was getting a late start on the growing season.

It would have been ideal to open the library in April or May, DeLong said. The seedlings still have a decent chance of growing into successful plants that will sprout edible fruits and veggies, as well as produce seeds for the library.

Though the timing wasn't optimal, DeLong hopes the seed library will provide some successful plants this season as well as stir up attention and interest from the community.

'Lending' seeds

The seed library is totally free and open to anyone. You don't even need a library card to use it. Seed library patrons can select a variety of seeds from the collection, place them in envelopes and take them home to plant.

The seeds are all heirloom seeds. These older varieties have not been hybridized or genetically modified. Heirloom plants are able to reproduce on their own by making new seeds, which can be difficult for hybrid or genetically modified plants.

"Hopefully, some of them will grow so you can have food over the summer," DeLong said of the seeds.

He explained the "lending" aspect of the seed library like this:

Seed library patrons can grow one plant from one seed. That plant could produce say 15 to 20 fruits or veggies. Eat all of those but one, letting it "go to seed." That one uneaten fruit or veggie can produce up to 100 seeds that can then be brought back to the library.

DeLong said the project also encourages gardeners to keep some of the seeds for themselves or share with friends and neighbors for the next growing season.

But the seed library will greatly benefit from "whatever you can bring back," he pointed out. The ideal amount requested is just enough to replace the seeds you "checked out" in the first place.

"We want to try to keep enough seeds coming back so it can sustain itself," he said.

And if a gardening endeavor isn't very successful, that's OK. Gardening is a process and involves some trial and error, DeLong said. Plus, it's a bit late in the season, so fruit and veggie yields may vary. If seed library patrons can't bring any back, there's no fee or penalty.

"We don't want to discourage people from trying," DeLong said.

More to learn

The seed library also has a checkout log patrons can sign and share information in, but it's optional, However, DeLong added that any data collected in the log could help secure funding or grant money for the seed library next year.

DeLong said he had never heard of a seed library before and, in fact, didn't have much experience gardening. But one day he came across information about a California seed library on the Internet and told his youth volunteers about it.

"It's filling an environmental need and a community need, so it really caught their interest," he said.

The seed library helps strengthen community and local food production, DeLong explained, as well as helps the environment by reducing the need for fossil fuel to ship in food.

The project has been a learning process for DeLong as well as his youth volunteers.

"I'm still learning. You can't learn everything about gardening in a few months," he said. "Things like saving seeds is totally new to me."

Now that DeLong knows how to easily save seeds for next year, he questioned the logic of buying new seeds at the store each season when gardeners could just save their own.

Next season?

The youth component of the project was getting the seed library started and doing the kickoff, so now DeLong and his fellow co-leader are volunteering through the summer to keep the seed library stocked and active.

The two will also be stopping in throughout the summer to answer planting questions and give gardening advice.

It is yet to be determined if the seed library will continue next season, but DeLong feels it has a good chance. If the community stays interested and the seed library proves to be low maintenance and self-sustaining, he said, "there's a good chance it'll be there next year."

"I could see that happening. I'm sure we'll evaluate it," Sun Ray Library associate Margo Bock said. "We really like sustainable programs."

Kaitlyn Egan can be reached at kegan@lillienews.com or 651-748-7816.