Rogers Park Seed Library Takes Grassroots Action Literally

The Rogers Park Seed Library is a literal grassroots organization, offering community-oriented gardening lessons and free seeds.

For some, Saturday afternoons are ideal for an indulgent brunch or a shopping spree — but for the Rogers Park Seed Library, it’s the time to take community action.

The seed library, headquartered at PO Box Collective at 6900 N. Glenwood Ave., serves as a community resource for free seeds, learning skills for home gardening and social action. The group took root in fall 2019 after neighborhood residents expressed interest in the project, according to Olly Costello, who has been a member of the group since its inception.

Social distancing precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic limited their activities, but as quarantine measures decreased and they found storage for all seed packets, their membership grew from 25.

Costello learned about growing food from the Rogers Park Yard Sharing Network and has been gardening for 13 seasons. Despite living in several different apartments throughout the years, the now-defunct network allowed them to garden with friends in the same backyard the whole time.

“It’s great to have opportunities to sit down with someone, chat and have your hands busy on something you know is contributing to a generative mutual aid project,” Costello said.

Each member has their own specialization ranging from knowledge about native plants, making connections with community gardens or soil blocking. Despite their realms of expertise, they all learn and grow together, Costello said.

Not every Chicagoan has the time or ability to go to Rogers Park for the seed library’s resources. To combat this, the group delivers seeds for free, Costello said. The South Side, for example, lacks adequate public transportation but contains a majority of the city’s vacant lots — some of which have already been turned into community gardens, according to Block Club Chicago.

Last year, the seed library processed around 180 delivery orders, according to member Annie Gardner, who manages deliveries. As of March 12 the group has processed 157, Gardner said. The supply comes from donations by community and group members, according to Costello.

“We’re just dealing with abundance,” Costello said. “One seed becomes thousands of seeds.”

Some of the most popular orders are for flowers, herbs and tomatoes, along with plants native to the area, according to Gardner. One native plant is Allium tricoccum, or three-seeded garlic, which indigenous Illinois language called “chicagou” — that’s how Chicago got its name, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Gardner said she’d already been gardening for a few seasons before 2020 but became more serious about the hobby once the pandemic hit. During quarantine, she and her family took long hikes through Cook County forest preserves and looked for mushrooms, which she said piqued her interest in the region’s native species.

“The longer I do this, the more I’m like, ‘I’m not growing my food, I’m developing relationships with farmers so I can barter for food,’” Gardner said.

Loyola alum Liz Carroll said moving from a house to an apartment made gardening more difficult, but his interest in environmentalism and experience in urban agriculture helped him make do.

Carroll, who attended the seed library’s open hours on March 2, helped package tomato seeds for distribution. He said he was drawn to the group’s energy and the opportunity for community involvement.

The Rogers Park Seed Library offers the opportunity for neighbors to collect, share or simply talk about seeds, according to the PO Box Collective’s website. (Hunter Minné / The Phoenix)

During the open hours, members hosted demonstrations to share their skills. Member Ash Luciani taught attendees about soil blocking, a method for planting multiple seeds at once, which uses less plastic than other techniques and can prevent root rot.

Luciani, 38, has been gardening in Chicago for the last 10 years. Luciani said they want to show how easy and accessible growing can be for everyone.

“That’s the cool thing about the seed library — we’re not trying to tell you how to do stuff, we’re trying to rally the community and showcase what we all can do together,” Luciani said.

Member Karen Harvey-Turner taught attendees about winter sowing, a way of potting seedlings when temperatures dip below freezing. Like other members, Harvey-Turner said she connected with other growers online, including an entire Facebook page for fellow winter sowers.

Harvey-Turner said one of her favorite memories of helping at the seed library was last spring’s plant swap, a show-and-tell where people brought plants they had started growing and shared their experiences.

“We had herbs, we had house plants, we had native plants — so much,” she said. “It kind of lightens your heart with everything going on in the world.”

While each member has outside jobs and obligations, Costello said all members work towards the main goal of the seed library — building a future everyone can live in.

Featured image by Hunter Minné / The Phoenix

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