Main Navigation

Home U Rising Planting seeds: U’s Seed Library promotes health and builds community


Did you know you can “borrow” vegetable and flower seeds on our campus? Jennifer Macali, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, and Brandon Patterson, associate librarian at the Eccles Health Sciences Library, are co-founders of the University of Utah's Seed Library. In this episode of U Rising, learn all about the seed library and how you can give gardening a try this spring.

Subscribe to the U Rising podcast on your favorite streaming platform, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. You can also access episodes of U Rising on our news website, linked here.


This podcast was recorded on Feb. 7, 2024, during a snowstorm!

Chris Nelson: Despite the February snowstorm outside, spring apparently is on the way and so it's time to think about this year's garden. So, you may be a gardening expert or a first timer wanting to try growing your own vegetables, but whatever your level of gardening knowledge, today's episode is for you.

My guests today are Dr. Jennifer Macali, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, and Brandon Patterson, associate librarian at the Eccles Health Sciences Library, They are co-founders of the University of Utah's Seed Library. Yes, there is such a thing. And yes, you can borrow seeds there. Today, you’re going to learn how that works.

Welcome to U Rising, Jennifer and Brandon.

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Jennifer Macali: Thank you!

Chris Nelson: Alright, so Jennifer and Brandon, whoever wants to take this first question, first off, what is the seed library? What is it? What's in it? Give me the overview.

Jennifer Macali: Okay, the seed library is a place that you can visit and find seeds and check them out. It's also planted inside of the library.

Chris Nelson: Planted inside the library. I like that. Very nice!

Jennifer Macali: Yes! For lack of a better term! It's inside the library where you can find books, resources about growing and or find a quiet place to study.

Chris Nelson: Other seed libraries in the country? Is this unique? Where else would I find a seed library?

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, so there's over 450 seed libraries throughout the country. A lot of them are in public library spaces, so we're kind of unique in terms of our academic library having one, but it's really served our community well.

Chris Nelson: Alright, unique in that we have one. I am still trying to connect the dots. You are a former nurse, nurse scholar. Brandon, you're a librarian and we're a university. So, give me the background on how we got the seeds in the library.

Jennifer Macali, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, is a co-founder of the Seed Library.

Jennifer Macali: Okay. Well, I think that it came together sort of as a happenstance and shared vision really during the Covid-19 pandemic. Brandon had been to a conference and had heard about seed libraries and we're both avid gardeners and we wanted to find a way to connect back to nature, to each other, to our community around us and learn new ways to empower individuals to get whole foods during the Covid-19 pandemic. And that was a period of time where we saw some cracks in our food system and so this was an opportunity to approach that from the ground up.

Chris Nelson: By training, you've been a clinical nurse before. Any connection to the seed library with that?

Jennifer Macali: Yes. As someone in health sciences, I think there's a direct connection between health and wellness and food and so really having access to high-quality food is a public health issue and also an opportunity to engage in healthy lifestyle and preventative measures before you might be diagnosed with something. So, I think a really great spot to have the seed library is on the health sciences campus so our constituents can borrow, but also for our health science students to learn how that impacts the care that they're providing.

Chris Nelson: I imagine both our students and our staff, you know, as a nurse on a 12-hour shift or a student studying for nursing or medicine or pharmacy or health, just that idea of that connection to nature and healthy eating. It’s a lot easier, I assume, to eat all the stuff that's not healthy in that environment.

Jennifer Macali: Yeah, absolutely.

Brandon Patterson: Well, it's fun to see the people that come in to see the library and take seeds because it’s often families as well. It's clinicians that are looking at taking home seeds to start gardens with their families and have their children start those pea seeds that they can use. So, it's a really fun, engaging community piece as well that we really enjoy having.

Chris Nelson: Nice. So why the Eccles Health Sciences Library?

Brandon Patterson: So, the seed library came out of a need to connect with community and reduce burnout. We saw a lot of clinicians, those working in the health care system, experience burnout and we knew that being outside, being with nature, gardening, had benefits.

Brandon Patterson, associate librarian at the Eccles Health Sciences Library, is a co-founder of the Seed Library.

And so, the library being a central location, we’re located in the middle of the health sciences campus, nearby the hospital as well as the schools and colleges, we thought it would be a great place to have the seed library. And I think it's also nice because there's other food security items like food pantries for students and so we connected with that group as well to ensure that students had connections to those seeds and could grab them when they wanted.

Chris Nelson: Wonderful, so that makes sense. Brandon staying with you. Is the library focused on certain types of seeds?

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, so there's really two ways in which we're getting the seeds. One is through donations. So we actually work with a local seed company, True Leaf Market, and they give us some seeds that they have left over from their gardeners. And so we're able to distribute those and those come just as they are so we get what we get there. But we were also able to get a grant through the Osher Wellness Center as well as the Sustainability Office to focus on seeds that were more local, organic and could work well within our climate as well.

Chris Nelson: So, if I go to Home Depot, Lowe’s, and I see all the seeds on the rack, those are kind of the more common ones, but what I'm going to get out of the seed library are kind of more locally sourced.

Brandon Patterson: That's our hope, really, is to have more locally sourced seeds so that we can build local plant resilience to disease as well as promote the well being of students, staff and faculty here.

Chris Nelson: Roughly how many types of seeds do you have?

Brandon Patterson: Right now, you know, we have about 22 varieties of seeds. So that ranges from everything from tomatoes to cucumbers, lettuces, greens, lots of herbs. We also do flowers. So, yeah, those depend on the time of year as well because we do get donations where we can get more varieties.

Chris Nelson: So, Jennifer, a preservation aspect to this, I assume?

Jennifer Macali: We don't use the seed library to preserve seeds, holding onto them year after year, but we do want to provide access to seeds that are new and fresh so that the seeds will yield the greatest amount of crops that they can for the growing climate that we have.

Chris Nelson: So that transitions into actually how the seed library works. My question is two-fold. What should gardeners and would be gardeners know and then as a non-gardener library, so I think of a library, I take a book and I return the book. I assume it's the same idea with the seeds, but I don't know how that works. So give me the lowdown here.

Jennifer Macali: So, yeah, the seeds are meant to be borrowed in the sense that we want you to come and check the seeds out. So we do keep an inventory of the seeds. It's important for our ability to keep that inventory up. When you come into the library, you take what you need after you've done some planning hopefully. So this is a perfect time of year to do that planning while it's still snowing outside and decide which seeds will best suit your growing space, whether that's in the ground, whether that's in a pot, maybe it's at a community garden.

And then at the end of the growing season, if you are able to you can let the crops go to seed and if you're able to collect them and return them to us, that is fabulous. It's not required. So, if you're not able to do that, it does take a little bit of time and energy, maybe a little extra education by reading some of the resources that are at the Eccles Health Sciences Library. But, yeah, come in and take the seeds that you want and if you're able to, we would love to have them returned as well.

Chris Nelson: Are you growing anything outside the Eccles Library? Do you grow on campus?

Brandon Patterson: We do work closely with the Edible Campus Garden community and so they actually have some volunteer shifts where people can go and volunteer at the garden space to get that hands-on practice if they want. And we've also partnered with them to redistribute our seeds because we're usually given them in bulk and so we have to put those in smaller envelopes for people to pick up. And so they also help us put those seeds into those envelopes for us.

Chris Nelson: So, you mentioned books that are available at the seed library in the library, which makes sense, gardening tips. Do you all take gardening phone calls? What does that process look like?

Brandon Patterson: Do you want to host a podcast about it?  Well, there's lots of podcasts out there. Salt Lake and the surrounding area has a great community garden group with a lot of helpful resources. The library actually has a guide that we put together with links to videos and podcasts and resources for newbie gardeners and a lot of questions. I do take questions from people that are new to gardening. I know I table sometimes with our gardening materials as well as seeds, and usually it just goes back to soil and water and some things that I can point them in good directions pretty easily.

Chris Nelson: Is the seed library a one-stop shop? Can I borrow tools from the library as well?

Brandon Patterson: So right now you can't borrow tools because we thought the logistics was a little difficult with dirt and us not having the facilities for that, but know that there are lots of communities there that are willing to let you borrow tools if you are new and not wanting to invest fully in tools yet. And there's also a robust buy nothing community where people are willing to give you or lend you those tools as well.

Chris Nelson: Let's talk about that because, again, on our campus we have a lot of students. We have busy faculty, so they may be living in apartments, condos, they don't have that, so you don't have to have a yard. You could go to a community garden. You might also grow them in the containers like you were mentioning, Jennifer. Advice you would give to someone who's like, “Hey, I'd like to get started. I like this idea, but I don't have easy access to land or a yard.”

Jennifer Macali: I think if you're interested in the community garden aspect, there are a variety of plots all across Salt Lake Valley. The plots are quite economical. Usually you buy into those for the growing season. So, it's a one-time cost at the beginning of the season, and usually if you are a good garden steward of that space, they will invite you back and then you'll get the first opportunity to secure a plot in seasons going forward. Often those plots also come with a source of water and it might even be on some sort of drip irrigation system as well. So that's a good way to start.

If you don't have space and are looking for something a little more economical, container growing is also an opportunity. I do think that takes a little bit of finesse so maybe looking at those tips and tricks that Brandon was mentioning, the links on the Eccles Health Science Library webpage, to get started and ensuring that you do have a really strong water source, especially if they're not in ground, they'll dry out fast.

Chris Nelson: Trying to grow a carrot in my kitchen window might not be the easiest thing to start with.

Brandon Patterson: There might be easier things!

Chris Nelson: That's fair, that may be my problem.

Brandon Patterson: But starting small is good. I think choosing one or just a few that you're able to really care for, that can mean the difference between success and not so, a lot of people start out with herbs, for instance, or flowers or things that you can put effort into and get a reward from.

Chris Nelson: So, I want to come back to the seeds themselves. So I'm really fascinated by this. You ask borrowers to bring back seeds to replenish the library. First off, is that successful? And I suspect over time you're going to get more and more seeds, so inherently you get more seeds. Is that basically the idea? Or do people just not bring them back at all?

Jennifer Macali: That is the idea but I think we started a couple years back and getting the individuals that are checking seeds out to bring them back, we're on a learning curve here in this community, so we hope to continue to grow the seeds that come back. But we will always purchase seeds so that there's enough at the beginning of a growing season for those who want to try their hand at it and see how it goes.

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, and we'd love to get to the point where we don't need to purchase those seeds every year, but I think it's extra credit at this point for people to give those seeds back to us because it does take a little more advanced learning to know how to harvest seeds and process those. And so that's something that we're excited whenever we get those seeds from people because they're like their little babies that they want to share with us and give to others. So it's a really fun moment.

Chris Nelson: So, you touched earlier on a little bit of the actual plants that you've got, but let me ask about that again. So do you have a most popular seed that you distribute based on just volume or people and then you also mentioned unique to Utah. So let's talk about some of the things, some of the seeds that you could grow.

Jennifer Macali: I think the most commonly sought after seeds would be tomatoes. I don't know if you agree with me. I think tomatoes and cucumbers are pretty common that people are looking for. I had several people ask me about some of the flowers that we had last year as well. I don't know what else. And carrots maybe would be the other.

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, I mean there are those seeds that bring on more conversation like tomatoes, like peppers that are always very popular, but those tend to, they're definitely not local. So those that are local, we actually look at yarrow or some of these other. . .

Jennifer Macalie: Amaranth is another local . . .

Brandon Patterson: Right, that I think takes some communication and building of knowledge to know what those are. But once they do know that they're local and that they're something that could help our sustainability, then they take notice and those become more popular as well.

Chris Nelson: One of the things you mentioned that prompts this next question is that sense of community. I mean a tomato, a pepper, those are grown to be shared. There's only so many tomatoes you can eat all at the same time. And, again, speaking back to the mental health, physical health aspects of that community, what do you see there? Is that an unintended consequence or a positive for gardeners?

Jennifer Macali: I think so. I know I share my crops! I bring them to work all of the time. There's opportunity to put them at the Feed You Pantry as well, that is on campus. So, yeah, it can be an opportunity to share your produce, but also to create conversations around meals that maybe you plan with friends or neighbors, colleagues at work. It is unintended, but I think it's a very happy happenstance.

Brandon Patterson: And if you are new to gardening, a tip is to find those people that have brought those vegetables in because those are the gardeners that you can ask questions to and more of them are willing to share, too, their knowledge.

Chris Nelson: So part of my career, I worked in the health sciences and the public affairs office up there, and I know every spring they have a seed-sharing party and so I'm just now connecting all the dots here. Other places on campus where listeners can pick up seeds?

Brandon Patterson: So we're actually just launching a new seed library in the Edible Campus Garden space behind the Pioneer Theater. And so there'll be a little library like you sometimes see in neighborhoods with books, but instead of books, these will have seeds in them that people and passersby can get seeds from.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I love walking through that part of campus because in the springtime you can tell what time of year it is, so that is such a fantastic space on campus.

Chris Nelson: So, Brandon, I think you're in your third year. How's it going? How many people are you serving do you think?

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, we've been seeing a lot of success with our seed library. Every year we purchase seeds and every year they've been running out.

Chris Nelson: Well, that's success.

Brandon Patterson: It is, and it's nice to see the growth and how people respond because we have actually invested more in it and had more seeds over the years, so it continues to get more and more popular.

Chris Nelson: So one question is, this is part of your jobs, you do this as volunteers? Where's the funding for this project come from?

Jennifer Macali: We both serve as members on the green teams in our respective departments. And I know for the College of Nursing, our green team will support some of the activities that go on with the seed library, so within the College of Nursing.

Brandon Patterson: Yeah, and same with the library. I'm part of the green team and we really saw this as also a sustainability effort, again, to build that resiliency within our food system. And yeah, we're able to provide some funding through that avenue.

Chris Nelson: So spring is coming up despite a February snowstorm we're currently in. What events do you have planned for the spring and where can listeners learn more?

Jennifer Macali: Well, we have our launch event coming at the end of March for the new seed library space behind the Pioneer Theater. You will need to stay tuned to the Sustainability Office social media to learn more about that event once the details are ironed out.

Chris Nelson: Jennifer and Brandon, thank you for being my guests on U Rising.

Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams, and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I hope you'll tune in next time. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.