If you’d like to enhance your garden and perhaps your dinner plate, nab some seeds. For that, your local library might be the perfect place. Hundreds of libraries in the United States and around the globe feature a seed library, where packets of seeds for flowers and edible plants are available, typically for free.

Advocates of these libraries say free seeds provide variety for home gardeners, educational projects for families, and wider access to healthy food. Greg Helmbrecht of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture described some of the perks of working with seeds. “Self-reliance, accomplishment, fun, education, sharing, and basically anything that comes to mind with gardening,” he said.

How They Work

Seed libraries are often set up in public libraries. You may also find them at community centers, food pantries, environmental organizations, and botanical gardens. Schools and universities occasionally host these libraries.

While each library sets its own rules, the seeds are usually free and users are not required to provide anything in return, said Rebecca Newburn, an organizer with Seed Library Network. The organization features information about established libraries and offers free resources for seed-sharing enthusiasts. “While you are encouraged to learn about seed saving, there is no obligation to return anything you borrow,” Newburn said.

Often, businesses or stores donate seeds to the library. While some seeds may be past the sell-by date on the package, they are still likely to germinate. Some libraries enthusiastically accept seeds provided by the public, especially if they were saved from plants that sprouted from library-provided seeds. Others are unable to accept seeds from the public. The policies on what seeds are acceptable for distribution often relate to state agriculture laws, which vary regarding packaging and labeling. Seed Library Network representatives participated in writing a model law for states that want to exempt seed libraries from some of the regulations, Newburn said.

The libraries often offer helpful gardening resources and occasional gardening-related educational workshops or other events.

Vermont Seed Library
Photo: Seed Exchange, Barton Public Library

Community Seed Exchange in Vermont

Heirloom and organic seeds are among those available at the Community Seed Exchange at Barton Public Library. Patrons provide some of the seeds in the collection, which the library appreciates, said Pam Kennedy, founder of the volunteer-run seed library. Seeds saved from successful garden harvests are valuable, she said, because it indicates they are suited for use in the region. Saving seeds is economically and environmentally beneficial, and the library offers workshops on the proper way to save seeds. The inventory also includes packages donated by commercial seed producers.

Seeds that produce food, including squash, pumpkins, green beans, beets, and tomatoes, are among the popular varieties, Kennedy said, because lots of residents in the rural region grow food in their gardens. Library patrons often select seeds for flowers that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to support their food crops.

The opportunity to pick from an array of seeds, including unusual varieties of vegetables, is part of the library’s appeal, Kennedy explained. Sometimes, it receives packets of seeds for produce with an interesting appearance or history, such as twisted summer squash from Italy or an heirloom tomato that originated in a prison garden.

The exchange works with partnering organizations and often shares its supply with other libraries, schools, and a community garden next door. With its partners, the exchange offers workshops on seed starting, garden planning, and seed saving, explained Kennedy. “We also do hands-on activities about seeds and gardening with our local elementary school,” she said.

Vermont Seed Library
Photo: Pam Kennedy, Barton Public Library

Seed Catalog in Nebraska

Blair Public Library offers flowers and vegetables in its stock of seeds. Like lots of other libraries, Blair displays its inventory in a repurposed card catalog. The primary users, according to a library official, are families with kids who are interested in sowing seeds as a fun and educational family activity. Popular seeds include watermelons, beans, and other edibles.

Blair Public Library Seed Catalog
Photo: Brooke Zarco, library director of Blair Public Library and Technology Center

Seed Library in Florida

A library in Jupiter, Florida purchases some seeds and accepts free packaged seeds offered by businesses in the seed industry. The collection includes heritage and hybrid seeds.

Often, the library divides packaged seeds into smaller packets, providing a few plants for users to try, said librarian Diane Gilmore, who established the seed library. The library requests that users take no more than five packs. Each packet includes planting instructions. Popular picks include spinach, arugula, and parsley, Gilmore said.

Like many other such libraries, the Jupiter branch offers programs and presentations on gardening topics, often featuring master gardeners.

Jupiter Seed Library
Photo: Jupiter Branch Seed Library

Libraries in Your Area

Seed Library Network offers a list of participating Seed Libraries. If your region is not on the list, phone local libraries and inquire if they offer a seed library. Other likely organizations include community centers, food pantries, environmental organizations, and garden clubs.

If you’d like to establish a library or share seeds on your own, check out these resources:

Feature image courtesy of Brooke Zarco, library director of Blair Public Library and Technology Center

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.