Nothing warms the cockles of gardeners’ artichoke hearts amid a spate of sub-zero weather as well as dreams of seed catalogs.
Except, maybe, seed exchanges like the one scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 31 at the La Crosse Public Library.
The exchange is an offshoot of the facility’s Seed Library and is scheduled in conjunction with National Seed Swap Day, said Kelly Becker, a circulation assistant at the library who also coordinates the seed program.
The Seed Library, which was the first such program in the state and is entering its third year, is open year-round, but interest ramps up even as the snow flies and temperatures plunge, she said.
“At the beginning of February, people start planning their gardens, what they want to plant and plan the layout,” Becker said.
The library offers more than 60 varieties of seeds, with vegetables ranging from arugula to watermelon, herbs ranging from chamomile to sage, and flowers from black-eyed Susans to zinnias. Last season, it attracted 300 gardeners of all ages and skill levels, including participants in the annual Earth Fair at Myrick Hixon EcoPark and a Garlic Fest where participants received garlic bulbs to plant.
“People want to grow healthy foods and preserve seeds for the future,” she said. “These are all heirloom seeds, and if they are not saved, some varieties could die out. People used to do it this way — save seeds and share seeds.”
Unlike commercial hybrid seeds, heirlooms have been handed down for generations and are considered organic.
Gardeners who tap into the Seed Library typically check out bar-coded packets of seeds, plant them and, ideally, return seeds to the library to be repackaged for people to check out the next year, Becker said. Patrons checked out 1,600 packets last year.
“There is an understanding that they should make a good attempt to return seeds,” she said. “We understand that life happens — that deer and rabbits can wipe out a crop,” she said.
Those who want to participate in the Jan. 31 exchange are encouraged to bring in packets of their seeds from last year between Jan. 26 and 29 and receive coupons to get packets on exchange day, Becker said.
Although seed libraries in other states, including Minnesota, have been challenged by state and federal officials over agriculture regulations, Becker said that has not occurred in Wisconsin,
Among the Seed Library’s patrons is Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, which used tomato seedlings to launch the pilot program for its edible landscaping initiative in planters in front of the hospital and on its patio, said, Kathy Oslund, a registered dietician at Mayo-Franciscan.
Mayo-Francican’s gardens contained about 20 types of edibles besides tomatoes, such as peppers, cabbage, sweet potatoes and greens, and much of the harvest was used in the hospital cafeteria’s salad bar and meals, she said. The edible landscaping program will be expanded this summer, she said.
Produce also will be featured in cooking presentations in a mobile kitchen the Franciscan Healthcare Foundation recently funded, Becker and Oslund said.
“People will be able to watch cooking and sample,” Becker said.
The presentations will be on basic food preparation, Oslund said, adding, “They will include healthy, tasty meals, how to cook on a budget and fast and easy meals to fix when you get home late.”
Mayo-Franciscan’s gardening ventures include being a partner with the Washburn Neighborhood Association in a community garden that started in 2010.
“It’s a way for the community and the kids especially to see where the food comes from. They can see beans in bags in the store, but not where they come from,” said Betty Kendrick, former garden manager for the association who grew some monster Italian heirloom tomatoes last season.
“I had tomatoes that were 16 ounces apiece — that’s a pound, you know,” she said. “I ate them and used them for freezing, sauce and gave a lot away.”
The 82-year-old Kendrick was soaking some of her Jacobs Cattle beans to make chili Tuesday in the warmth of her apartment while the thermometer outside refused to rise above zero.
“I have two jars (of Jacob’s Cattle beans), and I was able to give some back to the library,” she said.
“I really have to give a shout-out to the La Crosse Community Foundation for providing a grant to start the program,” Kendrick said of the foundation’s $5,000 contribution. “It’s really good for the community and sustainability.”