I’M CHECKING OUT SEEDS like mad in a lot of catalogs right now, but one seed company—Hudson Valley Seed Library—actually got its start a decade ago when co-founder Ken Greene let people check out packets of seed like they were books. On the last segment in my recent seedy series, Ken tells us about seed libraries then and now; about the reddest lettuce and the cold-hardiest calendulas that might make “modern heirloom” status; and what we can sow earliest of all, including poppies (plus he shares his can-do coldframe plan). And: Enter to win Seed Library membership and seeds, on me.
Maybe a half-dozen years ago, Ken and I were speakers on the same program at a big cooperative extension winter conference about halfway between his place in Accord, New York, and mine. The schedule prevented us from attending the other’s presentation, but somehow in the vast conference hall we gravitated to each other, and have been friends since, swapping not just garden visits and lectures at each other’s places, but also swapping seed.
The links to the audio podcast of our most recent conversation (detailed below) are the box at the bottom of the story, if you prefer to listen.
my q&a with ken greene
Q. I think it was 10 years ago–in 2004–that the original version of the Seed Library–got started, when you were working at a traditional book library, yes?
A. The form and the way that we’re doing things has changed a lot in 10 years, but the heart and the reason that hasn’t changed.
Ten years ago when I was a gardener, I didn’t really know or think about where my seeds were coming from. I didn’t have an awareness of what the seed industry was like. I got my seed catalogs in the mail, and I ordered what I wanted.
I was a librarian then, at the Gardiner, New York, library. The library director was an amazing gardener—and we were surrounded by all these small Hudson Valley farms, and a lot of farmers and gardeners used the library.
So there was always a gardener-farmer cultural conversation going on. That’s when I started learning more about genetic engineering, and the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid, and particularly learning more about the massive loss of genetic diversity that’s going on globally, as well as in our own backyards.
That’s what originally inspired me to get on the seed-saving spectrum. I started wondering what could I do in the face of something that seems so overwhelming that I can’t do anything about it. Wait, though, I realized; there is something I can do about that–I can learn how to save seeds. Not only will that have an effect on those issues I feel powerless against, but I also enjoy doing it.
Becoming a seed saver was a huge education for me.
But it didn’t feel like enough of a difference, and it occurred to me: Here we have this amazing institution the public library, that offers access to everyone in the community, and you can access everything there.
So I decided that because that was already in place, I could add seeds to the library catalog and think about seeds the way we think about books: Every seed is a story. There’s the genetic story, which is sort of the non-fiction story, and then are these fiction stories about each seed, that might be a myth or a tall tale.
So that was the beginning of the Seed Library—just beginning to add some of these seeds I was saving to the library.
What I asked was that if you checked seeds out, you learned how to save seeds from that variety, and that you saved some seeds from your garden to return to the library, so we’d keep that variety alive.
That was the first seed library in a public library in the country.
Q. I hear from readers sometimes who tell me of other seed libraries around the country—and I’ve read since of seed libraries elsewhere, too. from Colorado and Pima County AZ to Richmond CA to Chicago and beyond….
A. It’s really exciting—there are over 100 seed libraries in the country today.
A. We think of our work in two ways: Anyone can shop our catalog, just like any other seed company’s, and we keep those seeds separate for the most part from the seeds that are part of our library program, because we have to be able to guarantee the seeds that we are selling.
Q. Like the breadseed poppy seeds I “checked in” to Hudson Valley Seed Library last year—you can’t just turn around and sell those right away to people.
A. Right. So those seeds are separate. Then last year we totally reinvented the second part of our operation: our seed-library program.
Like the “one book, one town” program at regular libraries—where they choose one title and get enough copies so everyone in town can be reading it, and participating in a conversation—like a big, townwide book club.
That’s what we based our new Seed Library program on. Every year we now choose one variety that we think is important, and people who join (for an annual membership fee of $5) get a packet of that community seeds (this year it’s Van Gogh dwarf sunflowers). They also get a seed-saving envelope, and a seed-saving education throughout the season focused on that variety.
We ask that members then donate back some of the seed they save, and we donate seed to other organizations in need.
Q. And members get discounts on other seeds, from the catalog, right?
A. Early in the year is a good time to join—people who join get discounts buying online, that are cumulative (from 5 to 20 percent) throughout the season. Your discount goes up the more you shop.
Q. A couple of weeks ago, we talked to Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds. He spoke about how he grows heirlooms, and hybrids, but what he’s especially excited by are what are called might be called modern heirlooms, or modern OPs. I think you share that enthusiasm, but how does someone create a modern heirloom–and is that the grail of seed farms today?
A. It is very exciting work to be engaged in.
To my mind, odd as it may sound, all heirlooms are modern—because plants are changing all the time, and each time we’re saving seed, we’re changing that plant in some way. We saved it from the healthiest plant in my garden in the Northeast, which is different from healthiest one in the Southwest. So each generation of seed is fresh and new and modern, in a way.
That’s part of why we commission the contemporary artwork for our seed packets—in a way that’s about communicating that these seed are always fresh, always modern, and that the heirlooms are always changing, and it’s important that they change with us.
And then on the other side of that there’s breeding—active breeding (not just selection and maintaining). You’re cross-pollinating things purposefully to get certain characteristics, then selecting from subsequent generation to stabilize those characteristics.
Once that variety is stable enough to put it out in the catalog, that’s an open-pollinated variety—and those have the potential to become heirlooms of the future, or modern heirlooms.
A. I would place bets on it, yes. The color of ‘Merlot’ is amazing, and it was developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed—who’s like a seed god.
But it’s hard to predict what will become an heirloom, because it’s about staying power. Because it’s beautiful, or people want to keep it around because it tastes amazing, or it’s a really successful grower in a certain region, for instance.
Another of Frank’s that might be on its way, that we’ve started doing our own selection on, is the Flashback series of Calendula. The cold tolerance of them–they are the latest bloomer in our garden, and keep going, even after they look frozen [above]. Crystals form on them and then melt, and they just keep blooming.
Q. OK, I think I am already sick of winter. So if I can hardly wait to get going in my 2014 garden, what are the very earliest seeds of all that I can sow?
A. One that’s surprising: annual poppies! People go out and spread their poppy seed in the snow. The seeds love that freezing and thawing—most seeds hate that, but not poppies. We wait till March to sow ours, but I know people who do it in February.
Not right now, but in the near future: spinach. And peas—the earlier the better, as soon as you can work the soil (maybe March).
A. We sow it before winter, in late fall, because we’re going for a seed crop, but you could do mache very early in the season. Especially if you have a simple, portable coldframe (we have a plan on our website [photo above], and it would cost around $100 to build with easily accessible materials).
That would allow you to do radishes, arugula, onions—all earlier than if you didn’t have some kind of protection.
Q. What other goodies do you want to make sure we know about? That red turnip—and I mean red even inside!—called Scarlet Ohno revival turnip looks amazing.
A. Everything! Seriously, though: We had trial gardens last year, and that way we tested and tasted many varieties before committing to them—it was like speed dating. ‘Jade Blue’ dwarf corn was one winner [above]—if you think you don’t have enough space for corn. The ‘Red Noodle’ bean [packet art below] was another. Beautiful, and delicious.
enter to win the seed library seeds
I’LL BUY MEMBERSHIPS AND $20 GIFT CARDS for Hudson Valley Seed Library for two lucky winners. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way down at the bottom of the page:
What’s the first thing that you’ll sow indoors, and then the first thing you’ll sow outside, too, this coming season? Do you use a coldframe, cloche or other added protection?
My first indoor sowing will be shallots. As for outdoors, my coldframe had a nervous breakdown recently (don’t ask: violent weather!), so this year I think the early spinach will go out unprotected or just under fabric, and then will come the peas.
No answer, or feeling shy? It’s fine to just say, “count me in” or the equivalent and I will. Two winners will be chosen after entries close at midnight on Monday, January 27. Good luck to all.
- Browse the 2014 HVSL catalog online now
- Inquire about Seed Library membership benefits
- Catch up with all the stories and podcasts in my seed series
prefer the podcast?
KEN GREENE of Hudson Valley Seed Library was the guest for the latest edition of the radio show. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The January 20, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(Disclosure: Hudson Valley Seed Library sometimes advertises on A Way to Garden.)