Growing West Side Seed Library

By: Molly Phipps, MAEE Board President

The Growing West Side Seed Library (Seed Library) is a small, volunteer-run program which distributes flower and vegetable seeds to community members in the West Side neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The Seed Library strives to educate and engage the local community in topics of gardening and sustainability. Goals include promoting self-reliance and healthy food choices.

The Seed Library began operating in 2014. It is modeled after other similar programs in Duluth, MN.  It is run solely by volunteers in a public library space and is open twice a week, during planting season. A variety of donated plant seeds are kept in a cabinet for patrons to view.  People may take up to 3 seed packets per visit. Participants taking seeds are asked to sign in, and provide name and contact information, but are not required to have a library card or other form of identification.

 The Seed Library is a program of the recently founded Growing West Side organization, which is committed “to building a stronger community by supporting the development of community gardens and access to healthy food.”  Growing West Side has also worked to develop a weekly farmers’ market in the West Side neighborhood of Saint Paul, as well as other activities.  After the first season of Seed Library operations, lead volunteers decided to merge the education branch of Growing West Side as part of the purview of the Seed Library, because of similar goals and outreach strategies, as well as benefits from consolidation to shared efforts.

Educational programs have included children’s classes on Sunflowers, V is for Vermiculture (worm composting), and Jack and the Beans on the Boulevard.  Adult classes are held on a variety of topics:  Starting Seeds Indoors, Winter Sowing, Fruit Tree Pruning, Edible Landscaping, Fruit in Northern Climates, Chickens in the City, Garlic Growing, Seed Saving, Bees, Bean Summit, Healthy Cooking, as well as master gardeners on site with the Seed Library.  Volunteers have provided children-focused activities, including using the library’s regular story hour for gardening-related books and activities.  Another volunteer has incorporated arts and crafts activities for children related to the seed library, such as paper plate “peas in a pod”.

Partners include Gardening Matters, a local non-profit organization with a similar mission, and the Riverview Branch of the St. Paul Public Library (Riverview Library).  The Riverview Library is located in the heart of the West Side neighborhood of Saint Paul.  The building was built in 1916 and is one of three Carnegie libraries in Saint Paul.  The historical structure was renovated in 1989.  The library has provided a staff person as a liaison to the West Side Seed Library, who participates in regular planning meetings.  The library also provides meeting space for the planning meetings in addition to hosting the seed library.

Approximately 200 people participated in the Seed Library during the initial year, which included both children and adults. Participants had a wide range of previous gardening experience.  Some had never gardened before, while others were very experienced and brought in their heirloom seeds to contribute to the seed library collection.  A common question came from people who do not own property and were unsure if they would be able to plant seeds.

In the first year of the Seed Library, there was no budget.  Seeds were donated by seed companies and Gardening Matters.  Local residents also began donating seeds, throughout the spring and summer.  Next year, the Seed Library plans to have a small budget, perhaps $100, to purchase some seeds in bulk.  These funds have largely come from the sale of worm compost tea, donated to the Seed Library. If additional funds are available in the future, they may be used to support programming and classes.  The Riverview Library may be able to assist by purchasing items for classes held on site.

The Seed Library is staffed entirely by local neighborhood volunteers, with a lead volunteer coordinator.  One of the co-founders of Growing West Side, who is a master gardener, has also been highly involved in planning and staffing the Seed Library as well as teaching classes.  Another volunteer has created a database for tracking the seeds and the Seed Library patrons and also provides the data entry.  There are approximately 10 regular volunteers in total, but the group is “always looking for more volunteers.”

The interview took place at Sarah Foster’s home, where she hosted the first fall planning meeting for the Seed Library.  A stew of butter beans and kale was served amid lively conversation.  Sarah is the lead volunteer and coordinates the meetings as well as much of the outreach and planning.  I began the meeting by explaining a bit about the evaluation process and my goal to have it be a useful activity for the group.  Three volunteers, in addition to Sarah, were present.  Interview questions were interspersed with broader discussion about the future of the Seed Library, over the two hours.

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