Grow Your Own Food

Rochester’s Seed Library Takes Root
By Karen Lemke

Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick and Heidi Kass are on a mission: to encourage and inspire Rochester-area residents to grow their own food and promote sustainability on a local level. Their simple idea has turned into a blossoming Seed Library at the Rochester Public Library (RPL).  

Kirkpatrick, an architect of the local “Plant a Seed” initiative, is pursuing her master’s degrees in biology and leadership education. Meanwhile, Kass is the founder of the Backyard Bounty Urban Homesteaders Meet-Up group in Rochester and holds a bachelor’s degree in biology. Their passion for sustainability is rooted in the diminishing seed diversity.

“We’ve easily lost 80% of our seed diversity,” says Kirkpatrick. As fewer seed variations are available, the ability to adapt to changing conditions is also impacted. According to Kirkpatrick, one of the most famous examples of the importance of seed diversity is the Irish Potato Famine. “We don’t want that to happen again,” she explains.

Kass says she’s passionate about seed diversity, as well, but she’s even more motivated by the idea of giving people the tools to grow their own food. “Having a backyard garden has become a lost art—everyone used to have a garden in their back yard.” 

Kirkpatrick and Kass put their passion into action by contacting RPL in April, 2018, to pitch their idea for a seed library. The proposal was immediately embraced by library staff, including RPL’s head of technical services, Keri Ostby.

“We had casual conversations about seed libraries in the past,” says Ostby. The library often develops new programming initiatives following a formal program proposal. The Seed Library has been a prime example of that work, with volunteers like Kirkpatrick and Kass donating hundreds of hours of their time. Master gardener Beth Plaetzer and RPL staff, particularly Robin DeVries and Judy Goldsmith, have also invested hundreds of hours to make the project happen.

Through March, Kirkpatrick had donated more than 550 hours of time to the Seed Library and will donate even more time this summer, helping a group of Girl Scouts with their Silver Award project. “I am helping them grow plants in the planters outside the library,” she says.

In all, over 100 volunteers have shared their talents with RPL for the Seed Library. In January and February the volunteers gathered to package over 6,000 seed packets. There are a total of 44 seed varieties for different vegetables, fruits and herbs.  

During the Seed Library’s grand opening week, over 1,500 seed packets were checked out by community members, showing the strong demand for learning how to grow food. 

“The packets are available for any RPL cardholder,” says Ostby. Individuals can check out 10 packets of seeds on their card, with no due date. Patrons take the seeds and enjoy their harvest, but they are also encouraged to learn about seed saving. 

Ostby says the Seed Library includes more than just seed packets, with ongoing educational classes and events planned throughout the growing months. The library already hosted a speaker from Seed Savers Exchange in January, with a larger-than-expected crowd attending the event. “We hoped to have 30 or 40 people, but 81 attended the event,” says Ostby.

While Kirkpatrick says the Seed Library is “exactly how it was envisioned,” both women know it has the potential to turn into something even bigger. “I would love to eventually have a network of master gardeners in the area who grow food and collect seeds,” says Kass, adding, “Our work is far from done.”

The Seed Library is made possible with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the people of Minnesota for Library Legacy activities. The project is also getting support from the weGive365 membership and Rochester Area Foundation, University of Minnesota Extension SNAP-Ed, History Center of Olmsted County, Plant a Seed, and the Backyard Bounty Urban Homesteading Meetup.

For more information about the Seed Library, visit 

Karen Lemke is head of marketing and community engagement for Rochester Public Library.