Borrowing seeds: FAQs

Many Thanks to the Common Wealth Seed Library in Boise, Idaho, for inspiration on these questions and answers

Q. Is being a seed library member the same as showing up at a seed swap?
No. Anyone can come to the seed swaps or workshops and participate, but only members of the John Trigg Ester Library are members of the Growing Ester’s Biodiversity seed library program. You can sign up for membership at a seed swap, however—or at any other time. Library members can also join our Garden Group, which maintains the historic gardens of the Clausen Cabin and the perennial beds and flower baskets of the Ida Laine Clausen Gazebo. We would love to have you join us!

Q. What benefits do I have as a seed library member?
As a member of the John Trigg Ester Library, you get access to our entire collection of seeds (instead of just those available for the seed swaps), and you can check out books and movies on biodiversity and gardening from our GEB collection (as well as anything else in the library!). You also get information and support on saving good, healthy seed from your garden so you can have some for yourself and return some to the library for your fellow members. Best of all, you become a part of an enthusiastic community of gardeners working to create an abundant and secure local seed supply in the North!

Q. What are my responsibilities as a member?
A. First, learn how to save true and healthy seed from the crops you grow from your borrowed library seeds. (The GEB program will point you to lots of resources to do this, from local workshops and classes to books, films, online resources such as webinars, and more!).

Then, return seeds from as many of your library crops as possible to the JTEL at the end of the season. We have many fun opportunities to get together with fellow seedsavers, too, including a midwinter Seedstock!

Next, expand your own garden skills and the library’s repertoire by growing and saving seeds from new varieties as well as the old and donating some to the library. (Thanks in advance!)

And finally, have fun! Explore the amazing variety of seed that arises from plants in your garden, and try new and delicious foods from what may be very old cultivars indeed! And you can also have the satisfaction of knowing that you, as a gardener of unpatented, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, are preserving history and agrobiodiversity, combatting poverty, protecting our common heritage from privatization, helping Alaskans maintain a secure food supply, and improving your health. You are even opening the way for a diversified local economy! But it all comes down to enjoying the myriad delights of a garden.

Q. How much seed do I get?
A. As a member, you can take as many different varieties as you want from the library collection. However, you are expected to return seed from what you take, so don’t get overzealous! You’ll get a set amount of seeds, depending on the variety, but generally it will be as much as or slightly less than what you would get in a packet of seeds from the store (12-24 seeds).

Q. How much seed am I expected to return?
A. You should return more seed than you originally received, so the library selection keeps growing. Don’t worry—seeds are ABUNDANT! One seed will produce hundreds of seeds, so you won’t have any problems returning what you checked out and then some. Some seed libraries ask for 20x the amount of seed you took out. (For example, if you take 10 Roma tomato seeds, you would return 200—that’s roughly the seeds from 3-4 tomato fruits, and you’d have all the rest of the tomatoes to eat for yourself, after you’ve saved some seeds for next year, of course!). This creates a cushion in case your crop or other members’ crops fail—somebody is keeping the seed supply alive by returning more than they borrow. This pay-it-forward system grows a delicious culture of abundance!

Q. I don’t know how to save seeds. Can I still be a member?
A. YES! A major purpose of this program is teaching people how to save seeds, or providing them the resources to teach themselves. It’s fun, and easy to start. You can select varieties for your first year that are easy to save seeds from, and move on to harder crops as you gain confidence! We want to grow more seed savers. We will give you all the information you need to do it well.

Q. What do “EASY,” “MEDIUM,” and “DIFFICULT” mean?
A. These terms refer to the relative ease or difficulty of reliably saving pure, viable seed for a particular crop, and not how easy or difficult it is to grow the actual crop. Easy-to-save seeds go to seed, you can collect the seed, plant it next year and expect to grow a plant just like the parent plant you collected seed from. A medium-to-save seed may require you provide some distance between the plant from which you wish to save seed and another plant in the same family with which it may cross, or some other simple technique to keep the seed pure. A difficult-to-save seed may require hand pollination, caging, a two-year growth period, or some other precise method—not difficult to do, but very precise to the particular plant. Any seed saver can learn all the techniques necessary to save seed from any crop found in the library.

Q. How much does a membership cost?
Only $10 a year!

Q. Why charge a membership fee? What does my money go to?
A. Your membership is a contract between you and the JTEL, a reminder that you are part of a larger community of people who care about the quality of life in Ester and the Interior. The membership fee is kept small to make it accessible to anyone. It helps to pay for things like copies, labels, a website, and general office supplies, as well as heating fuel, etc. Most of our supplies and expenses are paid for through earnings from our community fundraisers, but membership fees also are of significant help with operations.

Q. How do I get my seeds?
A. In midwinter, we have an annual Seedstock event on Groundhog Day (the cross-quarter between winter solstice and spring equinox). This special event is for library members (or those who sign up as JTEL members at the event) and is held before the Seedy Saturday seed swaps. At Seedstock, members get first dibs on heirloom and open-pollinated seeds from the GEB collection, and, we hope, will donate seeds from their own gardens to grow the library’s seed stocks. Seedstock is a fun and lively event, featuring potluck, music, seed-packet stuffing and labeling, and sometimes even featured film viewing.

Later in the month, Seedstock is followed by two to three weekends of seed swaps, open to the general public. These include a broad range of seeds, from locally grown heirlooms to commercial hybrids—whatever people bring. 

Q. How do I return my seeds?
A. You can bring your seeds to next year’s Seedstock, mail them to the library (JTEL, PO Box 468, Ester AK 99725), come by any time during library hours, or bring them to our fall Rhubarb Festival (to be scheduled).

Q. How do I donate seeds to the library?
A. WE WOULD LOVE DONATIONS OF YOUR FAVORITE SEEDS! Simply fill out the information below and send it with your seeds so we have all the details about your crop, and we’ll get it into circulation, to be collectively stewarded by our community of gardeners and seed savers! We also have forms at the library. The more information you can provide, the better!

  • Grower name & contact info (will be kept confidential unless otherwise indicated)
  • Plant type and cultivar (For example, Tomato; Green Zebra)
  • Specific details on cultivar (e.g., big 4″ fruits, green w/yellow stripes, very sweet & juicy)
  • Year seed saved
  • Location grown (For example, Ester, Alaska)
  • Specific details on location (e.g., Old Nenana Hwy, south facing slope, elevation 900 ft)
  • Planting, set, & harvest dates
  • Other details (soil, cultivation information)
  • Original source, years grown & harvested in your garden (e.g., Seeds of Change, Ester grown from seeds saved & replanted for 3 generations)
  • Stories associated with the seeds (for example, was the seed brought over with your grandparents at Ellis Island? smuggled out of Iraq? developed by your great-granduncle? the cultural heritage of the seed is important, too!)

Q. Do I have to live in Ester to be a member?
A. No. Although one purpose of the GEB program is to create a locally-adapted seed supply for the Tanana Valley, membership in the JTEL is open to anyone (and definitely encouraged—visitors and residents alike!).

Q. Can I fulfill my Master Gardener community service requirement with the seed library?
A. Yes—and we’d love to have your expertise! We can use your help in preparing for and answering questions at our seedswaps, Seedstock, the Rhubarb Festival, and in preparing and planting the gardens at the Clausen Cabin and the Ida Lane Gazebo. Workshop aides would also be welcome! Your assistance at seed library organizing and packing parties would also be invaluable! For more information, please contact us at

Q. I don’t want to deal with having to return seeds to the library. Can I just buy them and be done with it?
A. Not at the library. Just like you would check out library books, you are expected to return the seeds you check out from the library, even though it’s necessary to grow them out first and harvest the seed. If you don’t want to go through all this, you may be able to obtain the same variety by purchasing it from an organic or specialty seed grower or seed exchange. Many of the varieties we offer are also available for sale through Zone 1 Grown in the Goldstream Valley (the only extant commercial vegetable seed grower in the Interior), or through organic seed sellers or seed exchanges on line. The GEB program maintains a collection of seed catalogs for your reference.