Community gardens at public libraries used to be a hidden history that dates back to the victory gardens of World War I and II.
Today, community and teaching gardens are out in the open, and flourishing in green spaces maintained by libraries around the nation.
They’ve cropped up all across my home state of North Carolina, and are helping to confront food insecurity by making space for food justice, food access, and food literacy.
Best of all, library community gardens are accessible, and surprisingly easy to start — if you don’t mind rolling up your sleeves and getting a little dirty.
Early evidence of library community gardens can be found from coast to coast.
According to historian Robert Searing, the Eastwood branch of the public library in Syracuse, New York, hosted a community garden during World War II after “a group of kids” teamed up to make it happen.
“They each brought a penny in to help buy seeds,” he said in a television news interview, “and they cultivated a garden right on the grass in the front of the library.”
At the same time, in San Bernardino County, California, librarians were growing a large selection of herbs and salad vegetables at the library victory garden.
“It was a fairly common sight,” one librarian recalled, “to see librarians in Levis and other suitable garb at work on their spring garden in the library’s back yard.”
Although many of these library gardens disappeared after the end of World War II, some continued, creating a precedent for the profusion of library-based community gardens currently cultivated across the United States and beyond.
In North Carolina, we’ve had a bumper crop of these newly expanded public institutions.
In 2006, Wayne County Public Library children’s librarian Shorlette Ammons approached the library director with a vision for a community garden in the building’s green space.
Though the director initially had misgivings about a library’s need for a garden, Ammons persisted and the community came together.
Partners of all sorts got involved, such as Cherry Research Farm, Goldsboro Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Cooperative Extension, and the local Boys and Girls Club. Local residents, and students from an agriculture class from Wayne Community College, also pitched in.
Each summer, children tend the garden, pull weeds, plant seeds, and learn about the food chain. Guests come to the library to talk about worms and beekeeping. Harvests never disappoint, and most of the produce goes home with the children who participated.
Anything extra is left out in front of the circulation desk for anyone to take.
Shorlette documented every garden success along the way, and in the summer of 2008, her project received a $3,000 grant from the American Library Association to expand the garden and connect it to the library’s summer-reading program.
Thirteen years later, the garden is considered “a valuable cultural resource for its citizens, residents and visitors.”
After her positive experience with the garden, Shorlette decided to take her passion for food justice to the national level. She now works as the community food systems outreach coordinator for the North Carolina State Extension, where she focuses on connecting Southern women of color with sustainable food systems.
Similar success stories are blossoming across the state.
In 2012, a gardening group approached Natalia Tuchina, the branch manager of the Walkertown Library in Forsyth County, with the idea of starting a community garden.
She gave them the green light, and the community came together to install a series of raised-bed plots that can be “checked out” for free every summer. (But if you don’t maintain your plot it goes to the next person on the waitlist.)
The garden has been so successful that in 2019 it was expanded. It also inspired a nearby middle school to start a gardening project.
Many participants are local residents of color who do not have private spaces of their own in which to garden.
A little over one hour south of Walkertown, in Newton, librarian April Green flipped the script on plans to pave over one of her building’s green spaces.
“We had a vacant piece of land,” she said in an interview in the local newspaper, “[i]t was rumored that it was going to be turned into a parking lot; I was just trying to think about better ways to use that, and thought it would be nice to have some sort of a garden out there.”
With community support, her vision became a reality, and now the garden is a space for all.
Most of what is grown there is given away. By mid-July of this year, the library community garden had donated “more than 151 pounds of this fresh, organic produce” to the Corner Table Soup Kitchen, a local nonprofit organization.
According to librarians, many in the local community’s large Hmong population are especially engaged.
In urban High Point, the public library has been growing food since 2013, after two librarians teamed up to “educate the High Point community” about the benefits — such as losing weight, and enjoying a more healthy and fulfilling diet — of growing their own food.
Since that seed was planted, the library garden grew to include a variety of services. These include a directory of local community gardens, a second garden plot behind the library, a library of seeds residents can “check out,” a summer meal program for kids, and a renovated library parking lot to host the city’s farmer’s market.
In the Appalachian Mountains in the west of the state, librarians at the Fontana Regional Library added “1000 sq. ft. of weeding, planting, picking, and sweating on top of our surplus of already scheduled summer library events.” Elsewhere in the region, the Canton Branch of the Haywood County Library has had a “Giving Garden” since 2014.
And there’s more still. The Dunn Public Library in Harnett County maintains a small demonstration garden in cooperation with master gardeners and the local extension service. They grow tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, green beans, and squash, and are getting local kids involved. The Charles H. Stone Memorial Library in Pilot Mountain, part of the Northwestern Regional Library System, has a garden maintained with a local Girl Scouts troop. At the Black Mountain Public Library, members of the seed-lending library work together to maintain a garden plot at the John Wilson Community Garden. They grow some crops to save seeds, and donate 10 percent of the yield to Bounty & Soul, an organization that helps build local food security.
My own research — including a survey of library gardens in the United States and Canada, and a collection of resources on the food-justice movement in public libraries — shows that community gardens are popping up across the country. I also worked with Becky Schneider of the Person County Public Library in Roxboro, North Carolina, to share her story about the community garden she started there. (The nuts-and-bolts details from her May 2019 presentation are available on my website.)
Most remarkable is that all this activity developed organically. No one at the state or national level told these librarians they should start doing this work. They just did it.
And it may get easier still to just do it. Last summer the American Library Association published Libraries and Gardens: Growing Together, a book that validates the efforts of librarians gardening in their communities at the grassroots over the years.
So if your library doesn’t have a community garden, reach out to them. They may be more receptive than you think.
And, for a final source of inspiration, check out Massachusetts librarian Caitlin Kelley’s 2018 TEDx presentation on “Public Libraries: Filling Gaps, Planting Seeds.” The premise of her talk is that “public libraries are a vital resource in communities and aren’t just a place only [to] check out books. They’re resource centers, community gardens, and more.”
Join us as we transform and grow our public libraries one community garden at a time.