<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=915327909015523&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1" target="_blank"> Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
BERKSHIRE ATHENAEUM

Berkshire Seed Library takes on new importance during times of food insecurity

People plant seedlings during a workshop

People of all ages plant seedlings during a hands-on workshop led by Julia Lemieux, head gardener for Pittsfield’s Community Garden Program, at the Berkshire Athenaeum. This program covered soil mediums, containers, growing environments, how to transplant seedlings to the garden, and attendees were able to take home containers seeded with plants of their choice. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

PITTSFIELD — When the pandemic closed the doors to the Berkshire Athenaeum in 2020, it also restricted library members from accessing the free seed library that was housed inside.

Community members Sam Panken and Lauren Piotrowski, who both worked at Hancock Shaker Village at the time, decided they would not allow the two-year-old program to end even if people could not “check-out” seeds in person.

“We decided to just take the seed library mobile,” Piotrowski said. “We went to the Athenaeum and got all the seeds, inventoried them and then reached out to members and actually mailed people seeds during the pandemic. It was totally volunteer-run and funded by private donation.”

A child's hands plant seeds

Recently, the Athenaeum hosted a seed-starting workshop. Lemieux came to the library to teach about 42 kids and adults how to plant and care for seeds and seedlings.

The roots of the Berkshire Seed Library started around 2018 by Alex Geller, the former outreach coordinator at the Athenaeum, in partnership with Hancock Shaker Village, Roots Rising and the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

The Berkshire Seed Library is modeled off other seed libraries nationwide. It encourages people to garden by providing 10 free packets of seeds to anyone with a library card in the Central and Western Massachusetts Resource Sharing (CWMARS) network.

Seed libraries fuel local food sovereignty by offering novice gardeners a valuable, free resource for growing different plant varieties. The program also provides farmers and nurseries a way to connect to the local community through donating extra seeds left over at the end of the growing season and instruction in seed-saving techniques.

The hope is that some seeds will be collected at harvest time and returned to the library to be available the following year.

Lemieux hands out dirt in containers

People of all ages plant seedlings during a hands-on workshop led by Julia Lemieux. In its first month of being open this year, the Berkshire Athenaeum reported that 118 individuals have checked out packets at the seed library.

People are encouraged to grow some plants in an open-pollinated variety. That way gardeners can collect seeds at the end of the growing season said Julia Lemieux, head gardener of Pittsfield Community Gardens. “It allows the program to be self-sustaining.”

Yet, that isn’t the only way a seed library is sustained year-after-year.

Last fall, Lemieux received a huge donation of seeds from Walmart that she shared with the Berkshire Athenaeum. About a third of the haul was donated to the library and the rest used by Pittsfield Community Gardens or was offered to anyone at the Christian Center and the Pittsfield Farmers Market through free seed boxes.

In the past, Carr Hardware has contributed unsold seeds and Hancock Shaker Village has collected heirloom varietal seeds that are shared with the library.

Two children plant seedlings

Willow and Austin Laughran, 8, plant seedlings during a hands-on workshop led by Julia Lemieux. “Getting your hands in the dirt and having children grow plants is therapeutic,” she said.

This year, the Berkshire Seed Library used some of its financial support from the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum to purchase cold-hardy seeds from Fedco, a regional agricultural cooperative based in Clinton, Maine.

Though the pandemic made access to the seed library difficult in 2020, there continues to be a growing interest in the program.

In 2021, 62 individuals (or families) took home 484 seed packets. In its first month of being open this year, the Berkshire Athenaeum reported that 118 individuals have checked out packets at the seed library.

“At the very least, that means that hundreds more packets have already been taken home this year than in previous years,” Alicia Hyman, outreach librarian at the Berkshire Athenaeum, said.

Volunteers from BCArc come to the Athenaeum to help sort and package seeds into individual coin envelopes.

Over the summer, the Athenaeum hosts an 11-week children’s gardening club on Thursday mornings from 10 to 11. Kids of all ages will help plant flowers, herbs and lettuces in raised beds in the outdoor terraces of the library.

“Over the weeks, we chart the growth,” Hyman said. “Then the kids are able to see that — ‘oh my gosh — last week, the lettuce grew super fast.’”

A view from above of three people planting seeds

Over the summer, the Athenaeum hosts an 11-week children’s gardening club on Thursday mornings from 10 to 11. 

Recently, the Athenaeum hosted a seed-starting workshop. Lemieux came to the library to teach about 42 kids and adults how to plant and care for seeds and seedlings.

“Getting your hands in the dirt and having children grow plants is therapeutic,” she said.

In the fall, Lemieux will return to the Athenaeum to lead a seed-saving workshop to educate community members about the importance of saving seeds because it’s the best model for keeping seed libraries viable long term, she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions caused a huge seed shortage. Farmers and backyard gardeners had trouble getting the seeds they needed to grow the food they normally would during the summer.

Workshops and programs, like the Berkshire Seed Library, provided a practical resource for local food systems when the fragility of supply chains were tested.

People reinvested in local farms and were able to appreciate growing their own food, Piotrowski said.

“People really want to develop a sense of local resilience. Growing our own food is as resilient as we can get.”

Lukas Southard is The Eagle’s newsletter manager. Prior to joining The Eagle, he was a chef in California and New York City, a whole-animal butcher and a trained sommelier.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

all