News / Ottawa

Some seeds with your books? Library teams up with Just Food for community seed bank

Last spring, the Ottawa Public Library partnered with Just Food to create the city’s first “seed library” for gardeners and people who want to learn more about growing food.

Photograph of basil plants being sprouted for a home garden.

Alicia Kachmar/CC 2.0

Photograph of basil plants being sprouted for a home garden.

Local libraries are a great place to borrow books about gardening – but starting this year, Ottawa residents can also borrow the seeds to grow the garden.

Last spring, the Ottawa Public Library partnered with Just Food to create the city’s first “seed library” for gardeners and people who want to learn more about growing food.

“People take the seeds out of the library during workshops,” explained Jordan Bouchard, a Just Food co-ordinator and organizer of the program.

“At the end of the season they bring back – ideally – twice the seeds that they borrowed if they’re successful, in order to cover for people who aren’t successful. We bring that back in and label it with who grew it and what year it’s from.”

“The seeds add up super quick,” he said. “The next year we can give those back out again.”

Seed saving and seed banks have a long history in the region. Bouchard said historically growers would “save the best and eat the rest.” The result was a natural process of careful breeding that meant plants were stronger, disease-resistant and custom tailored to their region.

The Just Food program brings that idea back to local gardeners.

“All of our seeds are from local seed growers, so the seeds we have are already more adapted to this region than your average seed would be,” said Bouchard. “You’re getting the learning experience and the seeds for free.”

All the seeds supplied for the first year of the program came from a local supplier, Greta’s Organic Gardens, and were specially picked to make sure they were easy for beginners to grow.

“We’ll see who brings back seeds, but I’d be happy if even 15 people brought some back. That means at least 40 people tried it, and if we have a near 50 per cent rate in the first year I think that’s pretty good,” he said.

Alison Blackburn, the library’s co-ordinator of program development, is at least one person who had success growing radishes and cilantro and plans to return the seeds this fall.

She said the program was a perfect fit for the library’s larger “food literacy” programming, funded with a grant from the Ontario Libraries Capacity Fund.

“We have a lot of literacies that we work on in the library,” said Blackburn. “There’s digital literacy, financial literacy, but food literacy is so key and fundamental. Food is the common thread that links us: everyone eats.”

The library is partnering with Just Food, Ottawa Public Health, Market Mobile and the Ottawa Writer’s Festival for projects like the seed library, community gardening workshops to foodie lectures.

Right now the seed library is only operating out of the Centrepointe library branch in Nepean, but it hopes to expand to other locations next year.

To get involved in the seed library program, Bouchard and Blackburn recommend getting in touch via justfood.ca and biblioottawalibrary.ca. While the growing season is now winding down, the program is still looking for seed donations and volunteers.

A look at some of the veggies available through the seed library program

1. Radishes

Radishes are among the easiest and fastest vegetables to grow in a garden, making them satisfying for beginners and kids. They’re generally planted in early spring and require full sunlight and take around 22 days to harvest. Radishes make a crunchy addition to salads, stir-frys or tacos. If you’re growing them to contribute to a seed garden you may want to let extras go to seed because the small pods are edible as well.

2. Orca Beans

Orca beans, also known as calypso beans, are named after their delightfully bold black-and-white patterning. They grow in a small bush and take around 80 days to mature to dry beans. They’re are high in fibre and iron and can be used much like other dried beans in stews, chilies, salads and soups.

3. Coriander

Coriander, or cilantro, is a popular herb and spice used in cooking around the world. It’s also a fast and easy plant to grow, maturing in around three to four weeks. The aromatic leaves can be used as a garnish on different dishes and the seeds (known as coriander) can be used as a spice or saved to plant again next year.

4. Lettuce

There’s a huge variety of lettuce that can be grown in backyard gardens and while the stem and seeds are edible it’s main culinary use is a leafy base for salads. Growing lettuce in your backyard is tastier and higher in vitamins than store-bought. Different types grow at different rates but most varieties take 45 to 55 days to mature.