Khadija Mason of Uniondale with her daughters Corie, 14, center, and...

Khadija Mason of Uniondale with her daughters Corie, 14, center, and Jessie, 12, receive seed packets from assistant library director Syntychia Kendrick-Samuel at Uniondale Public Library last month. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

With last summer’s memories of growing Chinese long beans the length of her arms, Khadija Mason trekked back to the place where she’s gotten plenty of free seeds — the Uniondale Public Library.

“It’s an awesome opportunity,” says Mason, 49, a  mother of three, whose family picked out walking stick kale, white marigolds, moon and stars watermelon and more in their latest trip. "A couple times they even had small plants you can take home to get you started and get you excited. It had me hook, line and sinker."

So-called “seed libraries” have sprouted across Long Island as part of an organic movement toward sustainability, powered by librarians watching the decline of pollinator species and responding to patrons’ desire for self-sufficiency. About half the Island’s 100-plus public libraries have the seed program, with a large number launched in the past year or so. Seeds are purchased or donated in bulk.

The variety of fruit, flower and vegetable seeds at libraries can be overwhelming, with a feast of 120 in Uniondale, for example, and more than 75 at Middle Country. There’s not just the tiny black specks that look like flea dirt and grow into basil. There are  Persian carpet zinnias, fig trees, dragon tongue bush beans, Long Island cheese squash, yellow wonder wild strawberries and even cat grass.

“It’s been hugely popular,” says Rebecca Voisich at the East Hampton Public Library, in its third season of free seeds. “When I think about the library’s place in the community, it’s a community center at the end of the day, so it’s like, how else can we function for the community? People want to garden, people want to grow their own food, and it’s an itch that we’re scratching for them.”

The itch has been driven by two main forces, librarians say. During the pandemic, people were looking to limit trips to the grocery store, where the shelves weren’t always well stocked. On top of that, surging prices have pushed people to look for food savings.

Seed libraries have bloomed fast. Smithtown, for example, touted more than 270 patrons leaving with 3,000 packets in the past two months, up from 340 taking 4,000 packets for all of last year.

Most libraries set limits on free seed packets and reserve them for local residents, the ones supporting library budgets. A few allow everyone to partake, including Middle Country and East Hampton.

Some feature twists to their seed libraries — tomato-mania, native species, heirloom seeds and seed exchanges, in which seed library users return with seeds from their plants.

But the biggest plot at the libraries may be the struggle to save pollinators. With bees decimated by disease and the monarch butterfly listed as endangered, members of the Seed Libraries of Long Island promoted giveaways of pollinator seed packets containing milkweed — the only plant that monarch larvae will eat — and other plants that feed insects and birds. Seed Libraries of Long Island was founded by Amber Gagliardi, who started the Middle Country seed library in 2018.

Pollinator packets are among the most requested at West Babylon, says Jessica Giannetti-Rice, the adult programming coordinator at the library, which also raises monarchs from caterpillar to winged creatures release into the library garden.

“We need these pollinators,” she says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have flowers and we wouldn’t have vegetables. I don’t know how we would sustain ourselves as a society.”

The seeds have given libraries a chance to show they’re about more than just books.

East Rockaway patrons have learned about container gardens, a seed library focus due to concerns about soil contaminated during Superstorm Sandy and homes that don’t have large yards, says Heather Massa, who is in charge of adult programs there.

The seeds brought in library newcomers, she says: “This is an opportunity for other people, who aren’t into books, to come join and say, ‘Hey, I grew these tomatoes’ and they’re able to help us figure out what they might want to see next” in library programs. 

Almost like gardening outposts, the libraries have grown seed-to-supper support systems, including advice by phone. Some partner with gardening clubs, seed companies, nurseries and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Patrons can attend workshops on building tabletop greenhouses, drying seeds, making healthy soil and even growing a “pizza garden” in East Hampton.

“I see libraries as being able to be stewards of seeds,” says Gagliardi. “The public gets it. People know it’s a good idea to grow their own food.”

With last summer’s memories of growing Chinese long beans the length of her arms, Khadija Mason trekked back to the place where she’s gotten plenty of free seeds — the Uniondale Public Library.

“It’s an awesome opportunity,” says Mason, 49, a  mother of three, whose family picked out walking stick kale, white marigolds, moon and stars watermelon and more in their latest trip. "A couple times they even had small plants you can take home to get you started and get you excited. It had me hook, line and sinker."

It’s not just a hobby — it’s a hobby that’s feeding my family.

— Khadija Mason of Uniondale

So-called “seed libraries” have sprouted across Long Island as part of an organic movement toward sustainability, powered by librarians watching the decline of pollinator species and responding to patrons’ desire for self-sufficiency. About half the Island’s 100-plus public libraries have the seed program, with a large number launched in the past year or so. Seeds are purchased or donated in bulk.

The variety of fruit, flower and vegetable seeds at libraries can be overwhelming, with a feast of 120 in Uniondale, for example, and more than 75 at Middle Country. There’s not just the tiny black specks that look like flea dirt and grow into basil. There are  Persian carpet zinnias, fig trees, dragon tongue bush beans, Long Island cheese squash, yellow wonder wild strawberries and even cat grass.

“It’s been hugely popular,” says Rebecca Voisich at the East Hampton Public Library, in its third season of free seeds. “When I think about the library’s place in the community, it’s a community center at the end of the day, so it’s like, how else can we function for the community? People want to garden, people want to grow their own food, and it’s an itch that we’re scratching for them.”

WHAT'S DRIVING THE INTEREST IN SEED LIBRARIES?

West Babylon Library librarian Jessica Giannetti-Rice; the vast seed library at the Uniondale Public Library; East Hampton librarian Rebecca Voisich putting seeds into packets. Credit: Steve Pfost; Danielle Silverman

The itch has been driven by two main forces, librarians say. During the pandemic, people were looking to limit trips to the grocery store, where the shelves weren’t always well stocked. On top of that, surging prices have pushed people to look for food savings.

Seed libraries have bloomed fast. Smithtown, for example, touted more than 270 patrons leaving with 3,000 packets in the past two months, up from 340 taking 4,000 packets for all of last year.

Most libraries set limits on free seed packets and reserve them for local residents, the ones supporting library budgets. A few allow everyone to partake, including Middle Country and East Hampton.

Some feature twists to their seed libraries — tomato-mania, native species, heirloom seeds and seed exchanges, in which seed library users return with seeds from their plants.

But the biggest plot at the libraries may be the struggle to save pollinators. With bees decimated by disease and the monarch butterfly listed as endangered, members of the Seed Libraries of Long Island promoted giveaways of pollinator seed packets containing milkweed — the only plant that monarch larvae will eat — and other plants that feed insects and birds. Seed Libraries of Long Island was founded by Amber Gagliardi, who started the Middle Country seed library in 2018.

HOW DO SEED LIBRARIES HELP THE ENVIRONMENT? 

From left: Elizabeth Carpio, 10, Grace Soria and her mom, Gabrielle Soria,...

From left: Elizabeth Carpio, 10, Grace Soria and her mom, Gabrielle Soria, Brielle Gouger, 7, and Jhovanna Contrreras, 7, prepare jars for seed planting at East Hampton Public Library. Credit: John Roca

Pollinator packets are among the most requested at West Babylon, says Jessica Giannetti-Rice, the adult programming coordinator at the library, which also raises monarchs from caterpillar to winged creatures release into the library garden.

“We need these pollinators,” she says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have flowers and we wouldn’t have vegetables. I don’t know how we would sustain ourselves as a society.”

The seeds have given libraries a chance to show they’re about more than just books.

East Rockaway patrons have learned about container gardens, a seed library focus due to concerns about soil contaminated during Superstorm Sandy and homes that don’t have large yards, says Heather Massa, who is in charge of adult programs there.

The seeds brought in library newcomers, she says: “This is an opportunity for other people, who aren’t into books, to come join and say, ‘Hey, I grew these tomatoes’ and they’re able to help us figure out what they might want to see next” in library programs. 

Almost like gardening outposts, the libraries have grown seed-to-supper support systems, including advice by phone. Some partner with gardening clubs, seed companies, nurseries and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Patrons can attend workshops on building tabletop greenhouses, drying seeds, making healthy soil and even growing a “pizza garden” in East Hampton.

“I see libraries as being able to be stewards of seeds,” says Gagliardi. “The public gets it. People know it’s a good idea to grow their own food.”

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