Green Thumbing

Green Thumbing

Inside Wilson Branch Library, nine-year-old Laila is trying to decide what to plant in her garden. She slides open drawer after drawer of an old wooden chest and sorts through envelopes of basil, carrot, lavender, radish and other seeds before finally settling on pumpkin.

It’s slightly past the ideal time for pumpkin planting, but Jeffrey Panettiere, a library technical assistant who’s also a landscaper (and a musician) on the side, doesn’t discourage her. Why would he? How do you know what will take root and thrive if you don’t try?

Take, for instance, the wooden chest itself. It was once the heart of a library, containing cards that directed patrons to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Hemingway until technology turned it into a receptacle for dust and lost keys. Now, as a seed repository, it’s a library unto itself, a garden of gardens.

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Bill Armstrong, former adult services librarian at Wilson Branch, created the seed library in 2021, according to an article last year in the Arts Paper. The ex-card catalogue’s drawers were neatly labeled for filing seeds alphabetically, then further labeled to distinguish between vegetables and flowers and herbs, then filled with inventory to take home free of charge, encouraging residents to cultivate their own food either at home or in the neighborhood’s community gardens.

When Armstrong retired in November, Panettiere took over the project, making sure it remains stocked with seeds, some purchased by the library, others donated by groups like Common Ground High School, the Sound School and local gardeners sharing from their own plots. He also curates an attached assortment of helpful reading material—books like The Urban Farmer, Grow Great Grub and The Forest Garden Greenhouse and pamphlets from the Audubon Society and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Wilson Library is otherwise verdant, with a pollinator garden and hawthorn trees outside and windowsills loaded with ferns, cactus plants, jade, ivy and geraniums inside, so the seed catalogue has been a natural fit. Panettiere describes how it also fits with the library’s broader mission: “It’s a form of literacy. In addition to getting people to read books, we also encourage cultural literacy, ecological literacy, etcetera, and we try to do things that support the community.” Branch manager Meghan Currey suspects Wilson is “one of the few spots” in the area to have a seed library, while noting that it’s “becoming popular across the country in various public libraries and even university libraries.”

Last year Wilson hosted a sunflower giveaway to help beautify the neighborhood and clean it, too, by removing heavy metals and toxins from the soil. This year staff did something similar with pollinator plants, distributing orange milkweed and packets of wildflower seeds.

The seed library has been as popular as those more condensed horticultural events, successful enough that its drawers nearly ran dry in May and had to be refilled, I’m told. Gardeners and kids love it, Currey says. Michelle Ziogas, adult services outreach librarian, added some kid-friendly visual appeal to the display with handmade “Grow Your Own: Peas” booklets offering simple directions, seeds and tiny soil pots.

Summer is passing by, but there’s still time to get seeds in the ground for colder-weather veggies like ​​collard greens, winter squash, beets, onions, kale and others, according to one of the library’s recent Facebook posts. Like, but also not like, library patrons of yore, you just have to flip through the old card catalogue and find what you’re looking for.

Wilson Branch Seed Library
Wilson Branch Library – 303 Washington Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 946-2228
Mon 10am-6pm, Tues noon-8pm, Wed-Thurs 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm

Written and photographed by Jill Dion.

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