A growing number of public libraries in Central Kentucky promote gardening by distributing free vegetable seeds to their patrons.
Libraries in Bourbon, Clark and Woodford counties began seed libraries this year, while Madison County's is in its second year.
The Clark County Public Library distributes heirloom seeds for beans, beets, carrots, corn, eggplants, lettuce, sweet peppers, radishes, tomatoes and much more.
As a hub for life-long learning and as a community center, a library can engage its patrons through gardening, said Julie Maruskin, director of the Clark County library and an avid gardener. She also teaches people how to raise heirloom tomatoes.
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"You don't need to have a greenhouse. You don't need to have a lot of property," Maruskin said. "Every little bit of food that you make yourself, it does something for you. It makes you happy. It's something to talk about."
Gardening "crosses age lines, it crosses political lines," Maruskin added. "I mean, I've had people who would have otherwise thrown bricks at each other sitting in a program and saying, 'And that tomato was this big!'"
Though just in its first year, the Clark County program had distributed nearly 7,000 seed packets by late April.
The seeds — half bought, half donated — come in bulk from a variety of sponsors and donors, including Fayette Seed, Southern States Cooperative and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a Missouri company that offers nearly 1,750 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs.
The library staff and a volunteer repackaged the seeds into packets for distribution to patrons. (They called themselves "the Sisters of the Silver Spoon" because repackaging meant using tiny spoons to measure seeds into packets.)
Patrons get a plastic "seed library" card, which entitles them to 24 packets of seeds per year, with a limit of one packet per variety of seed. About 350 Clark County patrons have seed library cards.
Maruskin isn't sure whether the seed program attracts people who wouldn't otherwise come to the library.
"We've seen a few people who haven't been here in a while," she said. "And they checked out some books while they were here. That kind of shocked me because I thought they'd get their seeds and run, but most of them stayed around and looked at the gardening books and talked to their friends."
Kale, okra, zucchini and edamame, a type of soybean, are among the selections the Bourbon County library offers. That library had distributed 1,990 seed packets by early May, said director Mark Adler.
Gardening "gets individuals, families and perhaps children as well outside, digging in the ground, perhaps reflecting on life as they do all that," Adler said. "It's just a good therapeutic thing for people."
Furthermore, "We know that Kentucky is one of the least-fit states in the nation, and getting information out there about fitness and healthy eating is real important to us."
Woodford County Library handed out "close to 3,000 seed packets" to about 500 patrons, said Emily Saderholm, adult services librarian.
"We did this in coordination with our cooperative extension service office, and our horticulture agent helped us and our master gardeners helped us," Saderholm said. "Our gardening programs are always so successful, and people are always so engaged in learning about food preservation and self-sustaining gardening projects."
In Madison County, the seed program at the public library came about as a partnership with Sustainable Berea, an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, said library director Ruthie Maslin. (This month, Sustainable Berea aims to build more than 100 raised-bed gardens throughout the city.)
"They had the know-how and they knew what was involved, and we had the connection into the community," Maslin said. "We have 53,000 cardholders, so that's a lot of people we can touch."
Last year the Madison County library circulated a little more than 1,000 seed packets from May through September.
The Madison County library also circulates rakes and hoses to "make gardening as accessible to people as possible. They bring them back, we clean them up and then it goes out to the next person," Maslin said.
The seed-library concept in some places includes having patrons return seeds at the end of the growing season as a way to share with other gardeners and to have seeds available for the next season. In practice, patrons in Madison County didn't bring back vegetable seeds, but they did share flower seeds in a gesture of thanks.
"What we did get was this wonderful collection of seeds that, to me, kind of captured a little piece of the community history and narrative," Maslin said. "So we got packets of seeds back with handwritten notes on them: 'These hollyhocks have grown in my grandmother's garden for 25 years.'"
While the rise of seed libraries across the country has resulted in enthusiasm from patrons, it also has attracted unexpected attention from state departments of agriculture.
In Pennsylvania, for example, a library received a warning from the department of agriculture that a seed library might not comply with state law, according to an article in American Libraries Magazine.
Under an agreement, that library is now free to distribute seeds, but it can't accept seeds without following the state's testing and labeling requirements for seed distributors. The library is free to host "seed swaps" where individual gardeners may exchange seeds with one another, the magazine said.
In Kentucky, because seed libraries aren't distributing "agricultural seed" as defined by state law, they are not subject to regulation, according to a September memo sent to county horticulture agents.
"We don't have any issues with what the seed libraries are doing," said Steve McMurry, seed program director with the University of Kentucky's Division of Regulatory Services. That division enforces state laws dealing with the labeling and product control of seed, feed, fertilizer and milk.
The bottom line is that a public library is about education, Maruskin said.
"It's for information. It's a community hub," she said. "It should be a place to get information that you want to make your life better."