Enter the Fowler Branch of the Concord Free Public Library with anyone under the age of 30 and you might find yourself explaining the purpose of that big wooden contraption with all the tiny knobs.
“It’s a card catalog,” you might venture. “In those drawers are little cards with book titles, authors, and call numbers typed on them to help patrons find books.”
But actually, you’d be wrong. This rather old piece of furniture, which was recently transported here from a New Hampshire genealogical society, serves a very new purpose. Inside its wooden drawers are small plastic packets of seeds.
This spring, the Fowler Branch became one of the first libraries in Massachusetts to pick up on a trend gaining popularity in California by offering its patrons a chance to borrow, and ultimately return, vegetable seeds.
Since the ceremonial garden twine was cut on April 22, in honor of Earth Day, at the branch in West Concord, libraries in Hardwick, Groton, and Norwell have started seed exchanges as well. Recently a library in Pine Plains, N.Y., contacted West Concord coordinators Enid Boasberg and Kitty Smith for guidance on starting one of their own.
West Concord resident Lisette Zinner was one of the first patrons to borrow seeds this spring. She had never heard of a seed library when the card catalog caught her eye.
“Inside the drawers, it looked like a science experiment,” Zinner said. “The seeds are labeled super-easy, easy, and difficult. I’m not that good at gardening, so I took the one of the kinds labeled easiest. It turned out to be jade bush green beans. Each seed packet is beautifully wrapped, and the fact that they’re free is kind of awesome.”
Options for seeds in this inaugural year include lettuce, beans, peas, and peppers, all of which share the characteristic that it is easy to harvest their seeds. Boasberg said the labels that Zinner spotted actually refer to how easy the seeds are to preserve, not how easy the plants are to grow.
Boasberg, who is semiretired from her job as a librarian at the Fowler Branch but still works there a few hours a week, came up with the idea when a fellow member of the Concord Climate Action Network showed her an article about the flagship seed-lending library in Richmond, Calif.
She liked the idea “both from an environmental standpoint and from the standpoint of finding new things that the library can offer,” Boasberg said. Coincidentally, the town was just about to embark upon a “community reads” project on the topic of agriculture.
“Then it took on a life of its own,” Boasberg recounted. A steering committee was formed, and a website — www.concordseedlendinglibrary.org — was launched.
Boasberg said about 50 patrons have taken advantage of the seed library, and its numerous benefits to gardeners.
“Saving seeds used to be something that all farmers did,” she said. “They did it to save money, and also because a lot of farmers used to do their own plant breeding. There are a lot of advantages to saving seeds from year to year. The seeds that have done well in a particular garden have become acclimatized to the soil and weather conditions there. And because you can save seeds only from open-pollinated plants and not hybrids, this helps preserve genetic diversity, which is important because genetic diversity protects you from a situation like the Irish potato famine, where they were growing only one kind of potato and that one kind was susceptible to the blight that destroyed them all.”
Kelly Roberts of West Concord learned about seed libraries on National Public Radio before she found her way to the one at the Fowler. “I hadn’t even realized that seeds could last more than a year,” she said.
“The idea that you borrow seeds at the beginning of the season and then bring more seeds back at the end of the season is intriguing to me,” Roberts said. “I’ve had a garden for many years, but I’ve never harvested my own seeds before. I borrowed some seeds for sugar snap peas, and so far they’re doing great. I hope to borrow and plant some lettuce seeds as well.”
Deborah Bier works with Boasberg on the steering committee for the seed lending library, and as the head gardener at the Thoreau Farm, also in Concord, she is in a unique position to spread the message.
“Our garden at the Thoreau Farm will serve as a hands-on lab and demo site for the seed library,” she said. “For now, we’ll save seeds from beans, tomatoes, things that are simple. And then we’ll teach people how to save the more difficult seeds, like squash.”
“I’m hoping it goes fungal,” Boasberg said, using a word that she says gardeners prefer to “viral.” “I’d like to see one in every library in the country.”
Philosophically, the concept makes a lot of sense to her. “Libraries have good availability. And one of the characteristics of gardeners is that we’re really into sharing. We share plants, we share information, we share gardening tips. And libraries have always been all about sharing.”