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Seed library takes root in Little Falls

Library goers to the St. Clare Library in Little Falls can come out clutching books to aid their intellectual growth… or packets of vegetable or flower seeds, to grow in their gardens.

People are generally overjoyed when they find out the seeds are free, said Elise Carey, library director and seed librarian.

Elise Carey holds a pack of seeds from the St. Clare Seed Library. The library is located on the campus of the Franciscian Sisters of Little Falls. Photo by Bill Vossler

“I find that children want to have a garden, and it encourages them to eat vegetables,” she said. “When a child is part of putting seeds in soil, and waiting and waiting until they forget about it, and all of a sudden these little things sprout up in the soil, they can watch how it changes every day, and when the fruit comes on, whatever it is, they’ll try it, like cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas. Or even some flowers. If parents can’t invest in those seeds, they can come here and have a go at it.”

“Here” is the St. Clare Seed Library on the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.

The seed library has many and varied seeds, like beans, peas, pumpkins, winter squash, pepper squash, nasturtiums, poppies, and so many more.

“It works like this. People come in and check out seeds, plant them, and from their new harvest return seeds to us at the end of the growing season,” she said. “We can teach them how to save the seeds if they aren’t sure.”

Some seeds available in the library which are more difficult to collect (carrots and beets, for example), are donated by heirloom seed companies or individuals who purchase too many seeds in a season. “In cases like those, we don’t expect seeds to be returned.”

“You’ll find some interesting seeds here,” said Carey.

Some have been donated by gardeners whose families have been growing such plants since their ancestors settled here from Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Germany. There are ‘George Washington’ beans, which people believe he brought with to the colonies, and ‘cave beans’ which were found in an old ceramic pot on an archeological dig estimated to date back 1500 years.

“They are quite rare, no one thought they would germinate because of how old they were. But when an archeologist had a go at planting them, surprisingly they germinated,” she laughed. “They germinated and grew, and we have some of their great, great, ‘grandbeans.’”

Another rare seed is the Futsu pumpkin, originating from Japan.

“It grows with a black skin that is sort of warty and as it matures the skin becomes sort of brownish. The flesh is a thick, deep, deep orange color that is so tasty it’s just phenomenal. We also have a large native squash donated by the Ojibwe. Heirloom seeds often seem to have an interesting story,” she said.

Those types of rarer seeds are kept in a separate area not available to seed-lookers.

A Little History

Carey’s interest in seed libraries began after seeing them while in other countries.

This jar of Hutterite seeds were brought into the library for redistribution. Photo by Bill Vossler

“When I got back to the states, I wanted to plant a big garden with varieties that most people don’t have–golden beets, little French breakfast radishes, green zebra tomatoes,” she said. “These are not common. You’ll never find them in the supermarket.”

She got her job with the Franciscan Sisters on Jan. 5, 2016, as Director of the Book Library.

“I run the library, build the collection, maintain the infrastructure, help those who can’t see well by getting books for them, and work directly with the sisters.”

After a while, she realized how the Franciscan values fit the concept of a seed library. So she started the St. Clare Seed Library.

“This is the perfect place. The library is very Franciscan, and is a privately owned library that is open to the public.”

Ironically, the packets of seeds are kept in the library’s old card catalog.

Planting Seeds

Carey encourages people to plant even the tiniest of gardens.

“One doesn’t need a big plot of land; just a small patio where you can plant seeds in flower pots. You could even take a bag of soil, cut holes in it, and plant potatoes right in the bag. You’ll grow a lot of potatoes.”

“The seeds from the library are offered in a small envelope, and recipients are given details of how they should be planted, like a quarter-inch deep and two feet apart. They write that down, and then I’ll give them from our seed stores,” she said.

Carey adds that each type of seed has its own set of directions.

“Something like a squash is more fiddly. You have to take everything out and let it dry. Peppers you spread out, but not on top of one another,” she said.

Getting peas ready means they should be in an area that’s dry around the pot. They should be dried in the pod, making sure they get lots of air.

“If you’ve planted a garden this year now is the time to begin to save the seeds. When donating seeds, it is important to have them from the most recent harvest, when they have the highest rate of germination,” she said. “It’s important that they’re saved properly, so I give them instructions on to do that, like keeping them in envelopes that breathe.”

When someone donates seeds, Carey asks a series of questions to try to determine how old the seeds are. “I want to know the history of the seeds – the recent history and past history if possible,” she said. “However, that’s not always known. Then it requires a little detective work and experimental gardening for myself.”

Hybrid seeds are not preferred.

“After the second generation they will produce some fruit, but not as much as before. A grandchild ‘grandseed’ might not bear fruit. So we won’t take any of those.”

Elise Carey, director of the St. Clare Library and St. Clare Seed Library, files the heirloom seeds in the library’s old card catalog. Photo by Bill Vossler

Another aspect she discovered was that the same fruit has a different name in other countries. When she lived in Latvia, she found that their varieties of tomatoes have a different name than the same variety in the United States.

“When the seeds came from places where they originated generations ago, they had a certain name based on that language, and we don’t always know what those names are here in the U.S.,” she said.

She added, “One beauty of saving seeds and donating them to the seed library is that it is win-win. People get food and the satisfaction of gardening, and we get seeds to give away again. It may be a pun, but it’s true: the seed library is growing. Fifty to 60 percent of the borrowers return seeds to the library, which is quite good, and the amount is increasing each year.”

Seed libraries have only been legal for the past few years, and many people are grateful for that so they can get seeds from the St. Clare Library on the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.

Hours for the seed library are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday – Thursday, closed from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch. Elise is the only person involved with the seed library.

“When I’m here, the library is open. People need to come in and ask for me. I’m happy to help people plan and start their gardening adventure,” she said.

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