Start A Community Seed Bank

Encourage the open exchange of seeds in your community to increase the diversity of seeds grown and encourage new gardeners to get started.

by Elizabeth Scholl
PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr

A community seed bank is a place where seeds are available for community members to share. The seeds can be seeds from local gardeners and farmers, donated by seed companies, or a combination of both. Seed banks can also be a place where gardeners and farmers can:

  • network
  • learn about the importance of open-pollinated, organic, heirloom and local seed varieties
  • participate in seed swaps and other workshops
  • learn about propagation, growing and seed saving
  • meet other people with an interest in growing food and other plants

A seed bank often conjures images of seeds housed in some remote place in the Arctic, well protected from a catastrophic world event. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a Norwegian island near the North Pole, for example, was built to protect seeds in case of a regional or global crises, and safeguards the seeds of all other seed banks. However, not all seed banks are like this. In general, they’re defined as facilities used to store seeds of various crops and wild plants, in an effort to maintain biodiversity, often focusing on varieties of crops that are specific to a particular region.

Community seed banks are sometimes called seed libraries, though they may or may not be housed in a public library. Community seed banks are places where seeds are stored primarily to share, through seed swaps or other events. Oftentimes seeds are donated back to the seed library by those who took seed and subsequently grew plants and harvested seeds from them.

What You Need To Start A Seed Bank

You don’t need a lot of money or supplies to start a community seed bank. Aside from a dedicated group of people to organize and implement it, you need three things:

  • seeds
  • a suitable place to store the seeds
  • a way of making the seeds accessible to the community

You’ll also need supplies to store and organize the seeds, such as jars or containers, envelopes, and labels.

If you’re just starting out, you probably can fit the whole seed bank on a couple of shelves in a library, community center or other public space. As the seed bank grows, you may need to meet the challenge of acquiring more space. The physical requirements are simply a place that is protected from exposure to humidity and moisture, insects and rodents, and extreme heat.

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Making Seeds Available

There are no set rules about where, when and how community seed banks operate. If you’re able to share seed and educate the community about the importance of saving seeds, preserving food diversity and sharing local seed varieties, you have met the goals of a seed bank.

If your seed bank is housed in a public venue, such as a library, patrons may be able to access seed during the hours that the library is open, though the library staff may want someone from the seed bank on hand to supervise.

If your seed bank is in a place that is not regularly open to be public, you we’ll need to negotiate with the building owner if and when the seed bank will be open to the public. If the space that you are storing the seeds is not a place that people can come to, you can set up a mobile seed bank and bring your seeds to community events, including:

When you attend these events, be sure to gather contact information from those who may be interested in volunteering to help.

Is There A Fee For Seed Bank Members?

This varies by organization. Some groups offer seed for free with no charge, while others charge a small membership fee to cover costs. In general, the seeds themselves are not sold if you get donations from commercial seed companies, which usually specify that their donated seeds cannot be sold.

Encouraging Seed-Bank Participation

As with any community organization, networking is essential to building the seed-bank community. The easiest way to contact numbers of people with an interest in growing food is to reach out to local gardening or agriculture related groups, such as:

  • Master Gardeners
  • garden clubs
  • community gardens
  • colleges
  • elementary, middle and high Schools
  • churches
  • local nurseries (for seed or other donations)
  • seed companies (for seed donations)

Promoting Your Seed Bank

Late winter into early spring are the best times to get people excited about growing seeds. If you get seed catalogs, you may notice they arrive just after the new year, when the holidays are over and winter really sets in. After weeks or months of being mainly indoors, the idea of starting a garden is appealing to many people, even those who have never done so before.

Here are some ways you can garner interest in your available supply of seeds.

Seed Swap

A seed swap is the perfect antidote to cabin fever in the winter, and there’s little doubt you’ll have trouble attracting people to an event where you are giving things away for free. While the people are perusing through and collecting their seeds, make sure to have flyers for future events, seed bank hours, seed starting information and sign-up sheets for those who are interested in volunteering to help.

Educational Workshops

Many people who are interested in growing plants from seeds don’t actually know how to do it. A seed-starting workshop is a great way to attract new gardeners, or those who have previously bought plants to grow in their garden but are curious about growing from seed.

Later in the season, a seed-saving workshop will help people learn how to harvest and save their own seeds—and give some back to the seed bank if you want to accept community donations. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate group who can teach these workshops, contact your county extension and reach out to Master Gardeners, who are trained to offer garden/farm advice, expertise and knowledge on a volunteer basis.

Public Events

Host a seed-related movie screening. There are a number of movies that focus on the importance of saving seeds. One I recommend is Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds and Seeds of Freedom (a trilogy). A library, community college or community center may host for free, and if you charge a small fee, you will cover your costs of the licensing. Many small film companies will be flexible about their licensing fees if it’s being shown for educational purposes.

Get Help Starting Your Seed Bank

The Community Seed Resource Program, an initiative of Seed Savers Exchange, was developed to provide resources to community groups and individuals with a passion for food diversity and interest in seed stewardship. They offer lots of print resources, free seeds, over the phone support and more.

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