By Cindy Hadish/The Gazette
ELY -- Squash, tomatoes and other plants grow lush and green in Melissa Sharapova's backyard, in Brandon Bruhn's community garden and elsewhere throughout Ely.
A new effort is helping spur the green movement in the town of 1,798, just southeast of Cedar Rapids.
The Ely Seed Lending Library began in March to promote sharing of open-pollinated, or non-hybrid, seeds in Eastern Iowa, one of a growing number of seed lending programs across the United States.
A national listing shows more than 50 seed lending libraries, with nearly half in California. Ely has one of just two listed in Iowa. The other is in Iowa Falls.
"We have a little bit of everything -- flowers, herbs -- whatever the seed companies were willing to donate," says Ali Alldredge, one of the co-founders of Ely's seed library.
Alldredge says the library helps preserve genetic diversity of plants that grow well in Eastern Iowa.
The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in California, one of the originators, notes that free public libraries were revolutionary in their time because they provided access to books and knowledge previously unavailable to a large segment of the population.
"A free seed lending library can also provide people with a chance to transform their lives and communities by providing access to fresh, healthy food that may not otherwise be available," the group's website notes.
Ely library patrons can take seeds from the library for free and fill out a form to note how many seeds and what variety they "borrow."
Sunflowers, watermelon, beans, carrots and nearly any type of tomato imaginable are among the hundreds of packets of seeds available at the library, located along one wall of Ely's public library.
Alldredge notes that borrowers are not required to return seeds, but are encouraged to save some from the plants they grow, if they can, to donate back to the library at the end of the season.
Six seed companies donated the original packets. So far, about 25 library patrons have used the program.
Books about seed-saving are available to check out from the library, and Alldredge says classes are planned to teach growers how to collect their seeds.
The seed library works in conjunction with the Economic Development Group of Ely; Ely Farmers Market and Ely community gardens, the latter of which also began this year.
Brandon Bruhn, 14, checked out zucchini and beet seeds for free from the library to plant in his community garden, along with other vegetable seeds that he purchased.
The teen, who will be in ninth grade at Prairie Point School this fall, has spent hours tending and watering the plants.
"We just picked a zucchini this morning," he says, adding that the beets were a bit more challenging to grow.
Brandon, who has gardened since he was in second grade, sells extra produce at Ely's farmers market on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings to save money for a new bicycle.
The seed library offers varieties that he wouldn't be able to find in a store, he says, noting that he will try to grow more types of peppers and birdhouse gourds next season.
Brandon's garden will be one of several on an Aug. 18 tour the seed library is organizing.
Alldredge says the garden tour will showcase the seed library's successes. Tour-goers can also meet for tomato tasting afterward at the library.
Tomatoes are among the easiest plants to save seeds from, Alldredge notes, and heirloom varieties have distinct flavors that store-bought varieties do not.
Ely Public Library Director Sarah Sellon says the seed library adds another reason for patrons to visit the library.
"It's definitely a nice, unique thing to have," Sellon says, adding that a demonstration garden is planned for the library's courtyard.
Sharapova, who co-founded the seed library with Alldredge, is growing Wapsipinicon Peach, Purple Cherokee, Green Zebras and other heirloom tomatoes and peppers in her garden.
A permaculture landscape designer who works with Backyard Abundance in Iowa City, Sharapova says she was inspired to make seeds easily available at no cost.
"It's great seeing the seeds getting checked out and knowing they're going into people's gardens," she says. "There's an advantage to have locals seeds tailored to your region's soil."