A seedy way to share
Seed libraries help neighbours grow together
Gardening can be daunting for those new to it: choosing what to plant, finding seeds, tools and other supplies, and hoping your seeds will grow. Fortunately, in most communities, help is around in the form of neighbours who are already active gardeners.
In Toronto, local seed libraries make gardening more accessible through sharing seeds. One person might not need all 400 tomato seeds in a packet, or might decide last season’s attempt at growing cantaloupe wasn’t their thing, while some gardeners might save dozens of seeds from last summer’s wildly successful backyard crop. A seed library lets neighbours donate or borrow seed packets for free. Unlike a seed bank, which focuses on conservation, libraries encourage planting, especially of organic seeds and seeds well-suited to the local climate.
The Toronto Seed Library is the largest initiative in Toronto, with 18 library branches in neighbourhoods throughout the city. In 2012, Jacob Kearey-Moreland was a volunteer at the Toronto Tool Library, a membership-based organization with a collection of hand and power tools, electronics, and other items that members borrow on an as-needed basis. The Tool Library already had gardening tools, so Kearey-Moreland realized that people would need seeds as well. He had already started a small seed bank at his home, but was interested in making seeds more available to the community.
Kearey-Moreland had participated in Seedy Saturdays annual community seed swaps that happen in locations across Canada. But these often happen with a group of gardeners who already know each other or are at somebody’s home, making them less inclusive. “After that, seeds leftover are put in a bin in someone’s house and not accessible throughout the year.” With the help of other gardeners, the Toronto Seed Library was born, initially based out of the Parkdale branch of the Toronto Tool Library. There are now 18 seed library branches, including some at Tool Library locations, and other community spaces throughout Toronto.
“The seed library concept is far superior,” Kearey-Moreland says. There’s an emphasis on public access, and “the library becomes a perpetual seed exchange.”
The TSL doesn’t require a library card: Just show up and take some seeds home. When you’ve grown your plants, bring back saved seeds of the same or another plant (“Don’t worry, there aren’t any late fees for crop failure or accidentally eating all the seeds,” the library website advises). The seed collection comes both from seeds saved by community members and donations from seed companies.
Nalini Singh is the seed librarian at the Inforum Library TSL branch at the University of Toronto, taking on the role after being approached by a graduate who was a TSL volunteer. The branch carries about three dozen types of seeds, with tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs being the most popular library loans. “We use an old card catalogue [to store the seed collection],” Singh laughs.“It’s a really wonderful way to get the community in and talk to people about gardening.” She says more than half of patrons are already active gardeners, but they do get quite a few first-time gardeners.
The Toronto Seed Library has inspired other garden-related initiatives in the city. Garden@Kimbourne, a community garden based in a churchyard in the city’s east end, launched its gardening-themed Little Free Library last summer. Little Free Libraries generally offer a space where neighbours can trade books they’re finished with; this one offers a collection of gardening books and seeds.
“We used to use the [Toronto Seed Library] branch that was at the Tool Library just a block away from us, but they moved, so our area was left without a branch,” says garden and library founder Erin Alladin. A community member donated gardening books, while seeds came from people’s households, community donations, and from the community garden’s plants.
The book library works on the honour system, and Alladin says they’ve noticed lots of patrons borrowing books since the library launched in July 2018. While the point of the garden is growing plants communally, the seed library aims to reach individuals in the neighbourhood and encourage them to grow at their own residences.
Community gardening and sharing seeds in Canada may be taking a tip from German traditions. Allotment gardens, where community members have access to their own garden plots in a large community garden, date back to 19th-century urbanization in Germany and remain highly popular today. The tradition of community gardening gives German gardeners and activists an obvious place for sharing seeds.
One community garden in Bengel, east of Frankfurt, has been active since the 1930s and founded its seed library in 2014. Another seed library can be found at the Tiergarten in Berlin. The Wachsenlassen Seed Library and garden works with other libraries and communal gardens in Berlin to help advance urban gardening and build green spaces in the city. Urban gardening projects in Germany are often connected to left-leaning political initiatives, such as helping the environment, increasing green space in the city, and introducing refugees to communal gardening.
Since starting the Toronto Seed Library, Jacob Kearey-Moreland has been active in helping other seed libraries start across Ontario, and has attended an international seed library forum in Tucson, Arizona, connecting with seed librarians from places as far away as Palestine and Seoul. “New seed libraries are emerging almost every day,” he says. It’s clear the concept is sprouting up as quickly as your spring tomato plants.