The Sower” towers over Nebraska from atop the State Capitol building, hand-casting seeds from the pouch slung over his shoulder. Those seeds would have been saved from the previous year's crops to ensure the next harvest. The iconic statue on the Capitol depicts an ancient practice, one that seed catalogs and then bedding plants largely replaced in modern times. But gardening preferences seem to be changing again: Seed saving is recapturing popularity.
The Common Soil Seed Library opened in mid-March at the Benson Library, 6015 Binney St. Instead of lending books, the seed library lends vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seeds. Anyone with an Omaha Public Library card can check out small packets of seeds to grow. Gardeners then harvest seeds from the plants and return some of the seeds to the library to replenish those they checked out.
Gardeners also can keep some of their harvested seeds for sowing next year.
Seed libraries developed in 2009 and 2010 across the United States, said Rachel Steiner, Benson Library manager.
An Omaha library cardholder can check out six seed packets a month, she said.
That's what Dan and Jessica Scheuerman did.
They got sweet pepper, Brussels sprouts, cucumber, cantaloupe, sugar snap peas and about five different types of tomatoes, said Dan Scheuerman.
“I've never grown anything,” he said. “I'm looking forward to it. I just built my grow light.”
He was an adult traveling in Connecticut the first time he ate a vegetable straight from a garden. He said fresh vegetables tasted nothing like vegetables had tasted before.
The Scheuermans recently moved to Omaha's Dundee neighborhood from the Washington, D.C., area.
They have two longtime Omahans to thank for Common Soil: professional gardener Elizabeth Goodman and library employee Naomi Solomon, who are neighbors and friends. They approached the Omaha Library Board with their idea, got the approval needed to start, and Common Soil took off, Steiner said.
Seed donations — from individuals, including Goodman, and from seed repositories nationwide — fill the seed library, Steiner said.
Volunteers sorted, packaged and cataloged the seeds, which are filed by Latin name with the common English name also provided.
“The staff here has been really good in learning about seeds,” Steiner said.
Abigail Riss has browsed the seed library.
“I was impressed that it had more variety than I thought it would have to start with,” the midtown resident said. It's been a while since she had a garden, but she plans to plant one this year with the library's help.
Abby Heithoff lives in the Benson area and attended the first Seed Saving 101 class at the Benson Library. The March 9 class was the first in a series to teach and encourage seed saving. The last class will be Nov. 20.
She harvested seeds last year from ground cherries and is anxious to see if they grow this year, but she wants to learn more about harvesting seeds. She, too, said she will use Common Soil.
Nate Dittman was among the gardening veterans who attended Seed Saving 101.
He gardened growing up, studied agriculture in college and volunteers at the Big Garden and City Sprouts, two community gardens in Omaha, and BloomsOrganic, a commercial organic farm. The Field Club resident also has used Benson's seed library for his own garden.
Common Soil has no seeds from hybrids, said founder Goodman.
When two plants with different characteristics are crossed, a hybrid results. A hybrid may be better than either parent because it has qualities of both.
Unfortunately, seeds harvested from a hybrid won't reliably produce plants with the same characteristics as the hybrid.
Goodman said Common Soil's plan includes buying nonhybrid seeds for at least five years “to keep a strong true-to-type seed stock.”
She has a bachelor's degree in environmental studies, is a graduate of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit that promotes seed conservation, and is production assistant at BloomsOrganic.
Solomon, Goodman's partner in starting Common Soil, is a young adult library specialist at the Elkhorn Library.
“A few librarians had mentioned that seed lending was on their wish list, and at the time, I was someone with time and energy to move the idea forward a little bit,” Solomon said.
“We figured the Benson community was perfect for this initiative because we knew they already had a successful community garden, farmers' market and well-loved health food market. All of these things closely tie in with what a seed library can offer,” Solomon said.
Seed libraries at public libraries began several years ago on the coasts, primarily the Pacific, and spread inland. There are hundreds, if not thousands, nationwide.
Benson Library is home to Nebraska's second seed library housed in a public library. The South Sioux City Public Library has a very extensive seed library, said Mary Jo Ryan, communication coordinator for the Nebraska Library Commission.
No seeds are loaned by public libraries in western Iowa, although there are a handful statewide.
Nevertheless, Iowa is a seed-saving leader.
The nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah has “the largest repository of pioneer and antique seeds in the nation,” said Kathleen Cue, horticulturist with the University of Nebraska Extension in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Seed Savers Exchange was established in 1975.
Internationally, the Svalbard (Norway) Global Seed Vault, also known as the “doomsday” seed vault, houses the Earth's most diverse collection of food crop seeds. The vault's purpose is to ensure that food crop diversity survives threats, including natural disasters and global warming.
Funding for Common Soil came from the Omaha Public Library Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation.
The seed library is open during Benson Library hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays.
Gardeners don't have to go to Benson to check out seeds. They can go to any Omaha Public Library and request that seeds be sent from Benson to their neighborhood location — just like they would request a book.
For now, Benson keeps the seed library in an old card catalog that's about 2 feet by 3 feet.
“Next year we might have to look at expanding,” Steiner said. “We hope that the seed library will help create a culture of sharing.”
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