Finally, after many years, I made it to the library. No, not the book library. The seed library, the Hudson Valley Seed Library.
Hudson Valley Seed Library is neither an ordinary library nor an ordinary seed vendor. It all started in 2004 in a book library, the public library in Gardiner, NY, where Ken Greene was working as a librarian. Working where people borrow and return books got him thinking about — why not? — setting up a library where people “borrow” seeds and return them also. With seeds, the “returns” are even better than with books. One borrowed seed of an annual vegetable or flower gives, in return, hundreds of seeds by the end of the season, in addition to tasty vegetables or colorful flowers.
Ken eventually left the Gardiner Library to put his energy into growing — literally — what became the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which began business in 2008. What about the borrowing and returning? Seed-growing takes a certain amount of know-how. To maintain trueness (that is, a seed from a packet labeled Buttercrunch lettuce snuggled into the ground actually grows into a Buttercrunch lettuce plant), Ken started growing most of the seeds for sale himself.
But the “library” part continues. For a nominal membership fee, anyone can become a community grower. In addition to a discount on the cost of the Seed Library’s seeds, community growers get to grow out seeds to return to the library. Each year presents a different variety to grow for all the members. And — most
importantly — they get an education on how to best grow the plants, maintain trueness, and collect the seeds for the year’s variety. So a promiscuous vegetable, such as cucumber, whose female flowers mate easily and readily with any cucumber pollen, needs different treatment than, say, a tomato, whose flowers maintain greater fidelity because each one has both male and female parts, and just a little vibration — a breeze, perhaps — unites male with female parts. This year, community growers harvested Blue Pod Capucijners Soup Pea seeds. Dwarf Sunflowers are on the docket for next year.
The weather was still warm and sunny when I visited the library in early October. Erin, an enthusiastic gardener/farmer who works there (and is working with some Otto File polenta corn seed I gave her), took me on a quick tour of the seed storage shed and the packing shed, and showed off their new seed-cleaner.
Rather than looking like a seed factory, a field for growing seeds can look like a very beautiful garden. Especially with flower seeds. Rather than just a flower bed of zinnias, spread before me was a small field electric with colorful, large heads of Dalhia Zinnias staring up at the sky.
Tasting some of the vegetables was fun, and put two varieties on my list for planting next year. Pink Ping Pong tomatoes were the size and shape of ping pong balls, with no similarity beyond that. The flavor was smooth and sweet, but not too sweet, and plants were still yielding well going into October. Scarlet Ohno turnip sports a scarlet skin that encloses a white flesh having streaks of scarlet. After scraping two-inch diameter roots clean with my knife, I cut slices to eat; the flavor raw was excellent, right out in the field, no doubt enhanced by the surrounding forest getting ready to put on its autumn show, the bright sunlight, and the clear, blue sky. (Scarlet Ohno also tasted good the next day, sliced onto a plate on my kitchen table.)
A certain number of Hudson Valley Seed Library seed packets cry out to be looked at. No ho-hum drawings or photos on these packets. Ken commissions artists to do illustrations, not necessarily of the
vegetables or flowers, but of an artist’s representation of the particular variety. So Calico Popcorn’s packet, illustrated by Jacinta Bunnell, sports a line drawing of an ear of popcorn against a colorful calico backdrop. A German Shepherd — Ken’s old dog, Kale — with a mouthful of kale decorates the packet of Dino kale illustrated by Michael Truckpile.
The originals of each year’s new artpacks (not every variety gets an illustrated packet) are featured in an art show that begins locally and then travels around the country. To see the schedule, go to http://www.seedlibrary.org/events/.
As I sit here writing, yeast and Lactobacilli bacteria are having a field day, feasting on moistened wheat flour that’s expanding by the minute as carbon dioxide is generated and trapped in dough. My bread is rising, bread made from seeds I saved for eating — wheat — grown this summer.
I finally tired of looking at the red pillowcase of wheat seedheads that had been sitting on the floor in a corner of my kitchen since the end of July. Whacking the pillowcase was supposed to knock the wheat berries off the stalks; it didn’t, not sufficiently, at least. A reader suggested pounding the pillowcase with a shoe. I did it, and — voilà — one cup of wheat berries from a 15 square foot planting. I ground the wheat into a flour in a coffee grinder.
Fourteen hours later: The bread has been baked, cooled, and sliced. The flavor? Excellent, but no different from my other breads. The yield? One-third of a loaf.
I had wondered how much land would be needed to grow a loaf of bread and now I know: 45 square feet, at least for me, a beginner in grain growing. Average wheat yields in this country are about 40 bushels per acre, which translates to twice my yield, in which case a loaf could be squeezed out of about 23 square feet. However, wheat yields can run as high as 150 bushels per acre — something to strive for (a loaf from 6 square feet).