Every Community Needs a Seed Library

by Bevin Cohen

seed catalog

Community seed sharing programs bring people together. So many times, as I’ve stood in front of a crowd at a seed library opening or other similar event, I’ve looked out among the faces and been amazed at the sheer diversity of people in the room: people of all ages, ethnicities, and gender. Seeds are truly a part of everyone’s story; without seeds we simply cannot survive. And with each passing year it seems that more and more people are realizing this and returning to the Earth, to the seeds that feed us all.

When people talk of saving seeds, inevitably they mention the importance of preserving genetic diversity. While genetic and historic preservation, adaptability, and self-reliance are all important aspects of the seed saving movement, it’s community building that is the foundation on which the entire movement stands.

As the movement toward increased food security and localized diet continues to grow, local control of our seed supply is a topic of significant relevance. One of the fastest growing facets of this movement is the seed library, a place where community members have access to a selection of seeds that they can “check-out” just like you would books from your public library. In fact, a number of these programs are actually housed within a local library. I always like to joke that if you want to see a librarian get excited just give them a new reason to use those old card catalogs! There is certainly something beautiful about those old drawers filled with packets of seeds eagerly awaiting a gardener to take them home and give them a grow!

To continue with the library book analogy, after a gardener checks out their seeds and takes them home, when the fall harvest is complete, participants are encouraged to bring their seeds back to the library to restock the supply. If properly executed, the seed library can become a closed circuit sustainable program offering its community a wide selection of regionally adapted, local seed. But it’s this part of the program that has proven to be the most challenging.  The general consensus among the directors of these programs is that getting community members to return seed at the end of the season is the most difficult challenge they face every year.

In my eyes one of the most beneficial aspects of a seed library is its ability to strengthen a community. When like-minded people gather together for a common cause, the friendships and relationships that develop have a value that’s far too great to measure. If a seed library’s sole accomplishment was to get people talking to their neighbors again, sharing seeds and recipes or even just their surplus zucchini, I would consider that a win. But what a seed library offers is also so much more.

Seed libraries are on the forefront of the local food movement, empowering communities with the tools and skills they need to regain the independence we must have in order to live happy and healthy lives. Every neighborhood deserves access to locally grown and adapted seed; every neighborhood should be home to a community seed library program.

 –an excerpt from the book ‘From Our Seeds & Their Keepers; a collection of stories”


Here is how you can start a seed saving library in your community.

Step 1: Consider contacting your local library and if they don’t already have a seed library in place, maybe it’s time for you to plant that seed.

Step 2: Many hands make light work. Connect with like-minded community members to form your seed library working group. Consider Master Gardeners, community gardens, your local herb society and other similar organizations.

Step 3: Time to gather your seeds! Many seed companies are willing to donate to community gardening programs. Reach out to them and make contact. The best time to solicit seed donations is in the winter when companies are hoping to clear out the previous year’s stock.

Step 4: Decide how your community seed library will organize and distribute your seeds. Will participants need to sign up and become members of your seed library? Or will your library be more of a “hands-off” give and take freestyle program? You’ll need to assess your community’s needs as well as your seed library’s resources to determine what the best fit is for your program.

Step 5: Budget for success! While you may be able to acquire your initial seed stock for free, there will be other small expenses you may incur during the setup phase, such as envelopes, labels etc. Plan accordingly!

Step 6: Have fun! Sharing seeds and stories is a fun and healthy way to support your community. Local seeds grow local food and healthy communities are happy communities! Together we can make the world a better place, one seed at a time.


Learn more about seed libraries and Bevin’s work at www.smallhousefarm.com

Bevin has published two books on the subject of seed saving:

From Our Seeds & Their Keeper; a collection of Stories, Small House Press, 2018

Saving Our Seeds: the Practice & Philosophy, Small House, Press 2019

Both titles are available via Amazon or directly from the author at www.smallhousefarm.com

 

 

 

Sage: The Herb of Thanksgiving

By Susan Belsinger

“Sage soothes both youth and age and brings the cook pleasing praise.”                                    Carolyn Dille & Susan Belsinger, Herbs in the Kitchen

The majority of recipes that we find for stuffing (cooked inside the turkey or other fowl) or dressing (generally cooked separately in a baking dish in the oven), use fresh or dried sage leaves for flavoring, whether the ingredients include sausage, oysters, mushrooms, nuts, dried fruit, traditional white breadcrumbs or cornbread. Besides its traditional uses with poultry, game, and liver, and in sausages, sage can add a rich and graceful note to vegetables, breads, and sweets.

Sage’s culinary use with rich dishes probably came from its reputation as a digestive. It was very highly held as a medicinal plant by the Greeks and Romans. Its principal use was as a calmative for the stomach and nerves. Regular use of sage tea was said to confer an even disposition to excitable natures and a healthy old age to everyone. Swiss peasants and American Indians used sage as a dentifrice, first chewing a few leaves, then brushing the gums with a twig.

Sage is much respected culinarily in England and Italy, where most country gardens have a sage bush, often fifteen years or older. The flavor from good sage stock does not deteriorate with age, however sage varies in flavor as much as some of the more delicate herbs, depending on the soil and weather conditions. Dalmatian sage from Yugoslavia is esteemed because the camphor odor is less pronounced than in sage grown in different climates. This aroma is also milder in the fresh leaf. The flavor of fresh sage has decidedly lemon rind tones over resin. The lemon flavor recedes and the camphor, and a pleasant muskiness similar to silage, comes forward when sage is dried.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) seems to keep its aroma and flavor through cooking and drying. Dwarf sage ‘Nana’, white-flowered sage ‘Alba’, and purple-leaved sage ‘Purpurescens’ and the wide-leaved, German ‘Berggarten’ are all handsome varieties of common sage, with good flavor and aroma. The latter cultivar is very strong in flavor, so a smaller amount should be used in place of common sage.

Sage–it’s not just for turkey!

Tis the season for sage—so harvest and dry it—or bring it into the kitchen and get creative with your salvias! Here are just a few ways to use this cold-weather herb in warming winter dishes:

Turkey stuffing—I particularly like it baked in my cornbread, which I bake ahead and then crumble and let it dry out a bit.

Winter squash baked with sage, garlic, and drizzled with olive oil.

Oven-roasted root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, turnips, leeks, and onions) diced and baked in a hot oven with sage leaves and olive oil, perhaps sprinkled with some ancho chile powder or smoked paprika.

Pinto, black, red and white beans are much improved by the flavor of sage and it works well with green chiles.

Pasta e fagioli wouldn’t be the most delectable pasta and bean soup without sage.

Hearty stews, cassoulet and chili benefit from sage seasoning, not to mention its antioxidant properties.

Both risotto and pasta are wonderful when combined with winter squash, sage leaves, and toasted nuts.scones pumpkin cranberries

Try fresh sage leaves in your biscuits or pumpkin scones.

Combine sliced sweet potatoes, apple slices, and onions (or not) in the crockpot with sage leaves and drizzle with a little maple syrup and add a few knobs of butter. Serve when meltingly tender garnished with toasted pecans.

My favorite seasonal fruits—apples and pears—are delightful with sage from sage apple cake, pear, and cranberry crumble to applesauce.

Sage honey is great for sore throats and coughs—taken by the spoonful or added to a cup of hot tea—I have some infusing now in local honey.

Cultivating Sage

Sage graces the garden with its soft grey-green foliage providing a pleasing contrast to the bright hues of most other culinary herbs. It will grow to a bush about four feet in diameter, keeping a well-rounded shape with little pruning in mild climates. All of the sages should have a well-drained or gravelly soil and some added calcium where it is lacking in the soil. Sage needs full sun and will survive through cold winters if well mulched. It should be pruned in the early spring to encourage new growth.

A good practice to follow is mulching sage with an inch or two of sand. That, and the careful sanitation of removing weeds and dead leaves will usually suffice to spare the plants from the soil-borne wilt diseases to which they are susceptible.

Harvesting and Drying Sagesage drying

Like most herbs, sage should be dried in a warm dry place away from sun. Once the leaves are completely dried they should be stored whole in airtight containers. Sage should be crumbled, never ground, as needed for cooking; grinding completely destroys the delicate lemony perfume and leaves the harsher resinous flavors.


Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photograph whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker.

Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.

Plant Labels

By Sam Webb

Webb plant label

Normally I don’t use plant labels, unless it’s the label that came with the plant when I bought it.  That is, until a visitor to my garden criticized, “What’s with all those ugly labels?”  I thought to myself, “Just great, now when I look at my garden all I’ll see is ‘Ugly Labels’. That is, unless I do something about it.”  That something is to make the effort to properly label the herbs using their botanical and common names. I’m retired now and have the time.  Do you think the great gardeners of a hundred years ago worried about plant labels?  Probably not, but the plant collectors would have; it’s part of collecting to know the names of the objects of your collection, document their acquisition, and most of all, to fill in what’s missing and acquire more. 

I started the label project by going to my local botanic garden to see what their plant labels were all about.  Their labels (see photo above) have all kinds of information on them.  In this example, the family name (Rubiaceae) is in one of the corners and in another corner, the country or region where the plant originates (Europe, N Africa). In another corner is an inventory number (2010026.7) that corresponds to information on file as to the date of acquisition, who acquired it, its location in the garden, and other facts about the plant. In the middle is the botanical name (Galium odoratum) and the common name (sweet woodruff).  Sometimes there is a short description of the use of the plant, an anecdote or folklore at the bottom.

Webb plant label 2So far so good. However, my penmanship is poor so I use a label maker with metal tags for my herbs.  My labels only need two things: a botanical name and a common name.  I am also lucky that I kept the names of all the herbs in my garden.  If you didn’t do that or don’t know at least the common name of any herb, labeling it may take more research. Use your HSA membership and ask. Most members love to help out other members.

Additionally, the botanical name is always expressed in Latin and is accepted worldwide, but there is so much more one can do with the common name, like add the foreign translation to the label.  I like to grow the Herbes de Provence,  so I can use sarriette d’hiver for winter savory, and so forth.  My pickling herbs could be in German, such as Deutscher thymian for German thyme. I could keep going but you get the idea of all the possibilities.


Sam Webb has a BS in Ornamental Horticulture from Delaware Valley University.  Retired from 25 years with Federated Investors Legal Department, Sam has spent most of his free time volunteering at three local institutions, the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Gardens, Carnegie Museum of Natural History- Botany Department and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.  He is a member of the Herb Society of America.

Bouncing Bet – A Soapy Herb

soapwortBy Maryann Readal

How can a gardener resist an herb with the name bouncing Bet? I could not resist this delicate pink and floppy plant after seeing it blooming in the summer heat in my friend’s garden. After hearing the name, I was curious about the story behind its title. For as you know, many herbs have interesting stories to tell.

Bouncing Bet, Saponaria officinalis, sometimes called soapwort, latherwort, and lady’s wash bowl earned some of these names because of the saponins in the roots and leaves of the plant. Since the Middle Ages, the leaves and roots have been boiled in water to make a soapy lather that is good for washing and bleaching delicate fabrics. Research studies show that soapwort was used in the making of the Shroud of Turin. It is true that museums have used the soapy solution of soapwort to clean tapestries and other artifacts. In France and England, where textile shops stood, patches of soapwort could be found because the herb was used in the textile industry for cleaning purposes. The French name for it was herbe à foulon or Fuller’s Herb, a fuller being someone who works with cloth. In the early 1900’s it was referred to as old lady’s pinks referring to its tenacity and ability to withstand harsh conditions.

Friars brought the seeds to England from Europe, where they planted them near their monasteries and used soapwort to keep themselves clean. The English colonists brought the seeds to the New World and used the lather of the plant to restore a sheen to pewter, china, glass, and old lace.

As sometimes happens, a good thing becomes too good as bouncing Bet escaped the garden and became invasive in some parts of the United States and southern Canada, spreading into fields where cattle and horses grazed. The saponin in the plant is not kind to the digestive systems of some grazing animals.  However, it does not seem to affect the deer that consistently consume it in my yard.

Because of the saponins it contains, soapwort’s roots and leaves are potentially toxic and should not be taken internally. However, beer brewers have used it to put a head on a mug of beer and it is used in the Middle Eastern tahini and the candy, halvah.  Historically, soapwort has been used to treat rheumatism, coughs, and itchy skin conditions.

Soapwort is a perennial in the carnation family that grows in zones 3-9. It likes well-drained, alkaline soil, tolerates drought conditions, and likes sun to partial shade.  It blooms in shades of white to pink single or double flower masses on a single stem. Bloom time is from spring to fall and it makes a nice ground cover. Despite the deer, I can’t resist trying to get it to spread in my more acidic soil. I love the flowers and love its rose-like smell.


Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.

Webinar – Herbs: The Multifunctional Workhorses of the Garden

Webinar – Herbs: The Multifunctional Workhorses of the Garden

By Jen Munson, Education Chair, The Herb Society of America

Webinar anise hyssop with bee (1)Look beyond the edible goodness that herbs provide and you’ll quickly recognize these unassuming plants are hardworking powerhouses in the garden. Herbs make great companion plants, aid in pest control, and support welcome beneficials. Plant mint near cabbage and tomatoes and you will help to deter the white cabbage moth. Anise hyssop and mountain mint will attract pollinators and other beneficials. Still further, fennel and dill provide food to the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. Transform herbs like garlic and chili peppers into organic pesticides while the herbs in companion plantings create beautiful and structured designs.

Webinar fennel with swallotail (2)Join HSA at 1 p.m. (EST), Tuesday. August 20, 2019, for our webinar, “HERBS: The Multifunctional Workhorses of the Garden” with Rose Loveall-Sale owner of Morningsun Herb Farm. Rose will speak about the extensive, and sometimes unusuall, uses of some of the lesser known herbs that will add color, fragrance, and texture to your planting designs.

Webinars are free to members. Non-members are charged a nominal fee of $5. Join HSA on or before September 3, 2019, and your webinar registration will be applied to your new membership. Can’t make the date? Register anyway as recorded webinars are sent to all registrants.


Make your own insecticide using garlic…

Garlic Insecticide Spray

Puree 2 whole garlic bulbs (not cloves) with 1 cup of water.
In a quart jar let mixture sit for 24 hours or overnight.
Strain. Add ½ cup of vegetable oil.
Add 1 tsp of liquid soap (Dr. Bronner’s is recommended)
Fill quart jar with water.

To use: combine 1 cup of mixture with 1 quart of water and spray on infested plants.


Webinar speakerAbout the Presenter: Rose Loveall-Sale, along with her husband Dan Sale, owns Morningsun Herb Farm, a specialty nursery in the countryside of Vacaville, Ca. Morningsun propagates and sells over 600 varieties of culinary, medicinal, and landscaping herbs, as well as many unusual perennials for hummingbird and butterfly gardening. They also sell scented geraniums, and heirloom vegetable starts in the spring. The nursery is located in an old walnut orchard that has been owned by her family for more than a half century. Spread throughout the property are numerous demonstration gardens, quiet sitting areas and a small gift shop. Besides the retail nursery, Morningsun also ships plants throughout the United States. Visit their website at https://www.morningsunherbfarm.com/

Let Us Stroll the Primrose Path of Dalliance

Let Us Stroll the Primrose Path of Dalliance

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

20190505_163700The botanical family name of the common or English primrose, Primula, comes from the diminutive of the Latin word for “first.” And the common name “primrose,” derived from prima rosa (“first rose”), is also a reference to the primrose being one of the first flowers of spring. This is not the evening primrose (Oenethera), or any of the other, more ornate, forms of Primula. This is the quintessentially English cottage garden flower.

Of course, it is then described as “vulgaris.” Sounds harsh. But this is not a matter of judgment of the primrose’s character. It’s just that, where the primrose is happy, it is very happy. It grows and spreads in abundance in cool, moist places.

This does not describe the micro-climate in most of our homes when primroses beckon so invitingly from the grocery store aisles shortly after the winter holiday season. Unless you are a very attentive indoor gardener, the best you can do is keep the little dears going long enough to be able to tuck them into the garden sooner rather than later in late winter. In its original home in western Europe, the common primrose grows wild along the sides of the roads. This has led to people digging up clumps to take away. This kind of raiding is now illegal in the United Kingdom.

primrose original colorThese wild primroses generally display flowers of pale yellow, the color sometimes actually called “primrose,” although pink flowers are also not uncommon. There was a craze among the Victorians for breeding new and different kinds of flowers.

All parts of the common primrose are considered edible by people, and the leaves and flowers have been brewed in tea and made into wine. In these forms, the plant is believed to have a mild diuretic, anti-spasmodic, analgesic affect. Of course, a lot of this could be explained by the flowers just being so pretty. It’s worth noting, however, that the Pet Poison Hotline website warns that, due to a mild “unknown toxin,” primroses may cause gastric upset to pets.

20190505_163636In the Language of Flowers, the common primrose is compared to the freshness of youth, of a pretty child growing up, not yet fully blossoming with the summer. However, the aura of sweet, inviting innocence, combined with the primrose’s habit of easy, exuberant growth, has led to another significance for the primrose: the perilous Primrose Path. First coined by Shakespeare in Hamlet (1602), the phrase describes a pleasant and easy path that leads to destruction. Cheerful dalliance. I’m all for that. Will you join me?