If you had a sudden yen to grow Cosmic Purple Carrots, would you be more inclined to try if you could check out the seeds at your local library?
How about if they came with no due date — no return at all? And if you needed only a library card and to promise you'll share extras with your neighbors?
Thanks to the new Seed Library at the Dunedin Public Library, I'll be testing my luck with Cherry Brandy rudbeckias, Double Click Rose Bon Bon cosmos, Fragrant Delight Mixed Agastache and Elves Blend sunflowers.
Dunedin's Seed Library officially launched Oct. 24, the first of its kind in Pinellas County, quickly followed by the Safety Harbor Public Library Seed Library. Card-carrying members of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative can check out seeds at either location.
New Port Richey Public Library in Pasco County opened its Seed Exchange in August.
"I think it's fabulous," says Dunedin patron Brian Crockatt, a winter resident from Toronto who's still figuring out our upside-down gardening rules. "Not having grounding in Florida gardening, it makes it easier to try new things. I got some green beans on my last visit. I was looking for radishes the other day. Today, I'm just looking."
From opening day to Dec. 31, Brian and his fellow patrons checked out 539 seed packets. Among the happy recipients is Courtney King, Dunedin's director of communications, who already has kale, bok choy, basil, chamomile and "a ton of lettuce" growing in her yard, thanks to the Seed Library.
"I wanted to share with my friends and neighbors — there's so much we can grow here," Courtney says. "I want to try to help with education, showing people how they can grow."
When I think library, I think books. But community libraries are constantly innovating. Around the country, more than 35 have sprouted seed-lending programs since 2010, when the pioneering Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library opened in the Richmond (Calif.) Public Library.
Those organizers worked hard to pass along the idea, sharing information and even downloadable labels and marketing material to make it easier for other libraries to follow suit (visit richmondgrowsseeds.org).
Just like my flaming glory bower, which came from my elderly Aunt Mary Lee Tyre's garden and has been passed along to landscapes all over Tampa Bay — even North Carolina! — seed libraries root wherever gardeners fall in love with them.
"I read an article last spring about the seed library in Arizona," says Doreen Chonko. "I told Phyllis, 'This is perfect for us.' "
Library director Phyllis Gorshe, being a librarian, insisted on doing some research first.
The next day, she was raring to go.
Phyllis wrote letters to 30 seed companies, begging donations and pulling the "poor library" card.
"The first box we got came from Burpee," she says. "It was like Christmas!"
The box held 400 seed packets.
Other donations quickly followed. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. — home of those aforementioned Cosmic Purple Carrots, which I'd love to try — included an enthusiastic request to "send pictures!" Botanical Interests, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Territorial Seed Co. and George W. Park Seed Co. also came through.
While Doreen and Phyllis both garden, they realized they needed more expertise. They enlisted volunteers from the Dunedin Garden Club and the 2-year-old Dunedin Community Garden.
"Getting with your gardening community is key, because they're the experts," Phyllis says. "They helped us figure out how to organize the seeds, and they'll be doing free educational programs."
Phyllis found an old-fashioned card catalog on Etsy.com, which the librarians and volunteers stock with seeds suitable for the current growing season. Drawers are categorized by plant type, and each seed packet has a bar code on the back, which gets scanned when patrons check them out — up to three packets per month.
"The bar code isn't because they have to return them," Phyllis says. "It's just so we can keep track.
She and Doreen are working on a system for taking seed donations from patrons, and this month they added a "seed of the month" display — lettuce for January.
"Five minutes after I put out the lettuce basket, three women were going through them," Doreen says.
Educational programs start Saturday, Jan. 11, with "Growing Tomatoes in Pinellas" at 9:30 a.m.
Seed lending libraries have so many benefits. They entice novices, including kids, to try gardening, and inspire education. They encourage biodiversity and propagating plants that thrive in a particular area, and they can help preserve heirloom seeds.
Perhaps best of all, says Courtney King, they bring people together.
"It's like spreading seeds," she says. "People share and talk. It's so community building. That's what we lost for a long time."
And all it takes is a library card.
Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected] Read more local garden stories on her blog, www.digginfladirt.com, or join in the garden chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.