How Your Local Library Can Help You Sow the Seeds for Your Next Garden

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Nashville library seed exchange

Photo credit: Nashville Public Library

Tennessee gardeners can empathize with the lyrics of the late Tom Petty when winter rolls around: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

For most of the state, the coldest months aren’t great times to dig outside – but that doesn’t mean you have to wait for warmer weather before you can garden again.

Growing plants from seed can be an economical way to beat the seasons. Start your seeds indoors in a controlled environment, and by the time the seedlings are strong and healthy, it should be warm and sunny enough to move them to the great outdoors.

While you will need some specific equipment, seeds – particularly heirloom peppers and tomatoes – tend to be less expensive than seedlings and established plants.

You may not even have to buy the seeds. Many Tennessee libraries have seed exchange programs. Library patrons can check out seeds, just like you would check out anything else. When the season is over, harvest seeds from your successful plants, dry them, label them and take them to the library to pay it forward to the next gardener. (Seeds are not guaranteed, so if you don’t grow enough to “return” any, don’t panic. You won’t face a library fine!)

Some Tennessee libraries with seed collections include Nashville Public Library, Oak Ridge Public Library, Seymour Public Library, Sevier County’s King Family Library, Blount County Public Library, Williamson County Public Library, Fayetteville-Lincoln County Public Library and Pellissippi State Community College Libraries in Knoxville. Many are operational year round, while others are shuttered in winter. Call ahead to your local library for specifics.

Getting Started

library seed exchange

Photo credit: Nashville Public Library

Even if you are not usually a direction-follower, you will definitely want to read the directions on the seed packet. There will be important information about how deep to sow the seed, how much light it needs and how many days you will have to wait to expect a sprout (about five to 10 days for tomatoes, for example).

You’ll want to plant in fairly small (4- to 6-inch) containers to start off – they don’t need to be fancy. You can buy seed-starting trays, but egg cartons or clean yogurt containers work. Make sure that there’s drainage in each compartment; it is easy to poke holes in the bottom of the containers before you fill them with germination mix (that’s the seed-starting soil that is lighter and is developed for growing roots).

See more: Winter Garden To-Do List

The directions on the seed packets should tell you when you can safely move the starts outside, after the threat of frost is gone (for tomatoes, for example, you want the temperature to be above 50 degrees). Before you plant them outside, harden them off, which means taking them outside for a few hours each day to get them used to their new environs.

Enjoy the fruits of your off-season labor.

Seed-Starting Shopping List

  • Lights: Fluorescent or LED bulbs will help your new plants get the “sunshine” they need.
  • Fans: A gentle breeze can help prevent disease,
  • Germination mix: Store-bought or homemade, you want a pest-free, fine, uniform soil for planting,
  • Fertilizer: Pick a liquid or water-soluble option that’s high in phosphorous.
  • Clean containers: Smallish containers will get you started, and then you’ll move your sprouts to bigger pots as they have bigger roots.
  • Calendar with last frost dates: This will tell you when it is safe to move your plants outside (typically in April for Tennessee).

About the author: Margaret Littman is a freelance writer and a Master Gardener of Davidson County. For more free advice on gardening in Tennessee, check with the UT Extension office in your county.

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