Patrons of the library in Burlington will have the option of checking out seeds as well as books this summer, because the town is one of a handful of communities in Colorado with a local seed bank housed at the public library.
This spring, the Burlington library is hosting a series of educational workshops on seed saving, taught by Linda Langelo, extension horticulturalist for Colorado State University's Golden Plains district. The first one is scheduled at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 27, with another workshop planned for Wednesday, May 1, at 6 p.m.
Seed libraries sound like an urban trendy thing, and indeed so far in Colorado most of them are located in cities along the Front Range. But the idea has been slowly germinating in small mountain towns and on the windswept plains, too.
The potential for widespread communal seed saving still has lots of room to grow, Langelo said.
"It isn't grabbing on any quicker in the cities than in the rural areas," she said recently. "It's a slow-go, but it's also something that will keep on persisting. It's work to do this, yes, but it saves you money. And you eat healthier, too."
With seed often anywhere from $3 to $5 a packet, the expense can add up. And buying cheap seed is not a good option either. By saving back seed from top performing plants and exchanging that seed with other locals, gardeners can reduce costs while expanding their planting options, Langelo said.
She's started several community gardens in the district, including one in Burlington on the site of a former commercial nursery, to encourage friendly cross-pollination.
"I always love to see gardeners come out and learn how to save seed and then start replanting the old varieties," she said.
Librarian Lisa Brewer started Burlington's seed library last year, after reading about the idea online.
"The first year we had quite a few people, maybe 15 or 16, come in to get seed, but only two of them brought seed back," she said.
It was a terrible hail year, which probably led to many local crop failures, she said.
"That's agriculture — you're at nature's mercy," she said. "We're just going to keep trying it, and hopefully people will get used to the idea that it's here."
The Burlington library is not at risk of running out of seed. Langelo provided plenty of regionally donated seed, which if properly stored could last 10 or 15 years. But as gardeners re-deposit seed, it will magnify the benefits of local seed selection.
Seed libraries are only one example of how even small-town libraries are expanding their services to keep up with changing times. They now offer things like 3D printing, podcasting equipment and more.
Brewer thought the idea of a seed library made sense with local weather conditions so extreme.
"One of our big stumbling blocks is that when you look at gardening books or magazines, they are not necessarily meant for the Plains, where its 80 degrees one day and the next you have a high of 30 and a blizzard going," she said.
She pointed out that apricot trees planted at the local community garden have only produced fruit once in the last 15 years. Only one of three original trees is still alive, and it is struggling, she said.
"This was a prairie. The trees here now are what people planted, not what nature planted," she said.
Home gardeners down through the generations relied on seed saving to come up with varieties that could withstand local conditions. And in farm towns like Burlington, most home gardeners have inherited unique lines that are now family favorites, Brewer said.
"Especially tomatoes — that's the big thing around here," she said. "That, and sweet corn, which is where gardeners really start talking about still growing the same strain that grandpa grew and adding this or that to it along the way."
Most of them are farmers or retired farmers who understand the value of hybrid seed that can be grown on a large scale, she said. But they also relate back to a time when every family had their own vegetable patch and neighbors shared what they had because there was little access to produce shipped long distances — or bred for that purpose.
"You give up flavor for that," Brewer said. "I'm probably prejudiced because I'm a gardener, but I've always believed my daughter was a vegetable eater because she grew up eating things right out of the garden. Kids who can eat vegetables while they are still fresh tend to grow up to be vegetable eaters."
Joi Sharp coordinates the seed-lending program at the library in Ridgway and is helping to start another in nearby Norwood. She's also been contacted about doing a workshop for the library in Gunnison.
"I've really noticed the interest in seed libraries pick up this past year," she said. "The word is out and generating interest. Hopefully, that will have a ripple effect."
Sharp is a home gardener herself and is well aware of the unique challenges of gardening in Colorado, especially in the mountains, which typically have a very short growing season.
Even so, that is changing. Sharp said last year the warm, dry weather provided more latitude to grow things like peppers, eggplants and onions — even fragile butter lettuces.
Brewer and Sharp have both taken inspiration for their seed saving efforts from the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, a nonprofit that puts on seed saving schools and provides educational resources across the Intermountain West.
Founder Bill McDorman claims to have trained more than 1,000 seed savers, including 13 students who have gone on to start their own bioregional seed companies. He estimates there are 500 seed libraries nationwide but would like to see thousands more, and he has set a personal goal to convert a million people into active seed savers.
Two years ago, Sharp attended the Mountain West Seed Summit in Santa Fe, N.M., a large regional event put on by the seed alliance.
"It really blew me away," she recalled. "The energy and excitement was contagious. It's coming out of need to save the diversity of our seed. You could have a crop die out and all of sudden it would really influence our future food choices, so there is a real need behind this."
There's also a cultural dimension to seed saving, since it is a time-honored tradition that ties people back to their heritage.
"One family can preserve a specific heirloom seed from 200 years ago, and now it's here in our library," Sharp marveled. "A lot of the seeds we have, I know the history behind them, and that is so enriching."
The seed-saving renaissance has been slow to take off, but she believes with time more awareness will blossom.
"I think the reason it hasn't been a big hit so far is people are really wrapped up in their own world and day-to-day life and don't think about how sharing benefits everybody," she said. "We are starting out small, but I think it's giving people a chance to enter into something that's new to them, even if it is old to humankind. Part of it is just being captivated by a seed as a magical world."
Back in Burlington, Brewer is hoping to see the local seed exchange gain momentum during the upcoming growing season.
"If we have classes and people can come and ask questions, hopefully it starts to create more connection between gardeners," she said. "That's what libraries do: we connect people with information."