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Austin Central Library's new seed library a free way to expand your garden

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Colleen Dieter separates out some seeds for the seed library at Austin Central Library.

[Carolyn Lindell/For American-Statesman]

Pulling open a drawer from an old-fashioned, wooden card catalog, visitors to the Austin Public Library’s Central Library won’t find small cards listing titles of books. Instead, they can pick through an assortment of little packets, labeled with names of the plant seeds found inside them. At the seed library, located in the downtown library, garden enthusiasts and others can “check out” — or really just take — these seeds for planting. If they want, they can also donate seeds to be packaged and put into the catalog cabinet’s small drawers for others to use.

“Ideally, you check out seeds, and you bring (some) back when those plants go to seed,” said Katrin Abel, a reference librarian at the Central Library.

This is all part of a seed library, which opened in January, in a corner area of the Central Library’s sixth floor.

Primarily alphabetized by common name, some of the packets filed in the drawers include seeds for sunflowers, alyssum, black-eyed Susans, vegetables such as kohlrabi, as well as many others.

“I hadn’t expected all the (seeds from) trees and shrubs,” Abel said. “One patron donated a huge number of Texas mountain laurel (seeds).”

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A binder with information is available by the seed library. A recent inventory showed that the library had 134 seed varieties, with about 1,300 checkouts and about 1,200 packets available.

“We focus on Texas natives. … We wouldn’t stock an invasive species,” Abel said.

A list of available seeds can be found online at, then click on Seed Library Inventory. Other information about seeds and gardening can be accessed there, as well.

Word about the library has spread through the public library’s web site, social media and other ways, Abel said, adding that “a lot of people say they just stumbled into it.”

“I’d say we get checkouts about every day,” Abel said. “It was really wild in the springtime.”

RELATED: Learn about gardening firsthand at local library

The wooden catalog cabinet likely came from the building that now houses the Austin History Center, when it was the Central Library, according to the Austin History Center.

The seed library has attracted a range of people, Abel said, “from college students with container gardens,” to master gardeners, families and others. “Teachers love it,” Abel said. “They can do projects with the kids.”

This seed library came together in collaboration with a small, informal group, led by Colleen Dieter, called the Central Texas Seed Library. (The group is in the process of changing its name to the Central Texas Seed Savers.)

This group has assisted in starting and maintaining this program at the public library. Dieter said the group, sponsored by the nonprofit TreeFolks, originally formed with the intent of getting such a seed library in place, among its other goals. (The group also is working to conduct seed swaps and classes, and establish a seed bank, in an effort to help keep certain seeds from extinction, Dieter said.)

The group soon received lots of seed donations, from various sources. “People started coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘I have seeds,’ Dieter said.

Working with the public library seemed practical for several reasons, Dieter said. Libraries make good places to keep seeds because they have a controlled temperature inside; as well, the infrastructure of a library “is already set up for lending and borrowing,” said Dieter, who owns a landscape consulting business.

On a more philosophical level, Dieter said, a seed library for the public creates a “spirit of … sharing” and fosters a sense of community.

Library visitors who take seeds — with a limit of four seed envelopes per visit— are asked to fill out a short checkout form and return it to a card catalogue drawer. Seeds do not need to be checked out through the usual checkout stations at the library, Abel said.

Though not required to donate seeds in return, many folks do. Donations can be handed to staff members at the Central Library, Abel said, or donators can fill out a form, put seeds in an envelope and place that in the card catalog donation drawer. Abel said.

Some seeds arrive still attached to other plant parts; “People will bring beans that are still in the pods,” Dieter said.

“We get them in baggies, plastic containers,” while other folks who have checked out seeds sometimes bring back partial packets of unused seeds, Abel said. Some people donate seeds that are already packaged and labeled, too.

Donations also have come from commercial seed companies, Dieter said.

Organizing the seeds for the library takes effort from devoted volunteers — often members of Dieter’s group — as well as library staff. Monthly gatherings — open to the public — are the first Monday each month from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Central Library’s sixth floor. The next “Seed Library Gathering” is Aug. 5.

Usually about a dozen people turn out, Dieter said, though attendance was lower in July. Volunteers help by separating the seeds from other plant parts, Dieter said.

“Some species, it’s really hard to tell,” which part is the seed,” Dieter said, adding that seeds need to be totally dry before they can get packaged.

Then the seeds are put in envelopes, which are labeled with the seed name and date the seeds were originally harvested (if the date information is available), she said.

Library staff tracks and organizes the seeds in the card catalog, Abel said.

Brianna Walther volunteered at a recent gathering, getting right to work. Sitting at a table in a library meeting room, Walther separated out tiny dill seeds and piled them into a small group. She used her fingers to pinch a few off the table and put into a little white envelope. Some arugula seeds she put into packets using a small scoop.

Walther, 39, had recently visited the library and found out about the gathering on Facebook. “I thought it was such a great project, and I wanted to learn more,” she said. “I already save seeds on my own at home, so even better to do it in a group.”

Meanwhile, Dieter put seeds of a Korean mint plant in packets. One of the perks of doing this, she said, is finding new plants. “This Korean mint, I’d never heard of before.”

As a loose rule of thumb, about 20 small seeds are put in each packet, while larger seeds come about 10 to a packet, Dieter said.

Overall, the monthly gathering also offers a chance for people to talk with others who have a similar interest. “All you need are some people and some seeds,” Dieter said.

Seed libraries are becoming more common at public libraries, with prominent seed libraries in cities such as Dallas, Abel said.

A few other Austin library branches have also shown an interest in starting a seed library, Abel said, and the Yarborough Branch Library is expected to offer a seed library when it reopens from renovation.

A couple gardeners, Abel said, recently donated seeds that had come from plants grown with seeds from the library. “We’re already seeing our second generation,” of seeds, she said.

The seed library has run into a few small difficulties; for example, some of the drawers of the old cabinet are sealed shut, Abel said: “It would be great if somebody could figure out how to access that,” without damaging it.

So far, the seed library has garnered lots of positive reactions. Dieter said: “Everything about the seed library has exceeded my expectations.”