Finally, after many years, I made it to the library. No, not the book library. The seed library, the Hudson Valley Seed Library.
Hudson Valley Seed Library is neither an ordinary library nor an ordinary seed vendor. It all started in 2004 in a book library, the public library in Gardiner, NY, where Ken Greene was working as a librarian. Working where people borrow and return books got him thinking about — why not? — setting up a library where people “borrow” seeds and return them also. With seeds, the “returns” are even better than with books. One borrowed seed of an annual vegetable or flower gives, in return, hundreds of seeds by the end of the season, in addition to tasty vegetables or colorful flowers.
Ken eventually left the Gardiner Library to put his energy into growing — literally — what became the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which began business in 2008. What about the borrowing and returning? Seed-growing takes a certain amount of know-how. To maintain trueness (that is, a seed from a packet labeled Buttercrunch lettuce snuggled into the ground actually grows into a Buttercrunch lettuce plant), Ken started growing most of the seeds for sale himself.
But the “library” part continues. For a nominal membership fee, anyone can become a community grower. In addition to a discount on the cost of the Seed Library’s seeds, community growers get to grow out seeds to return to the library. Each year presents a different variety to grow for all the members. And — most

importantly — they get an education on how to best grow the plants, maintain trueness, and collect the seeds for the year’s variety. So a promiscuous vegetable, such as cucumber, whose female flowers mate easily and readily with any cucumber pollen, needs different treatment than, say, a tomato, whose flowers maintain greater fidelity because each one has both male and female parts, and just a little vibration — a breeze, perhaps — unites male with female parts. This year, community growers harvested Blue Pod Capucijners Soup Pea seeds. Dwarf Sunflowers are on the docket for next year.

The weather was still warm and sunny when I visited the library in early October. Erin, an enthusiastic gardener/farmer who works there (and is working with some Otto File polenta corn seed I gave her), took me on a quick tour of the seed storage shed and the packing shed, and showed off their new seed-cleaner.
Rather than looking like a seed factory, a field for growing seeds can look like a very beautiful garden. Especially with flower seeds. Rather than just a flower bed of zinnias, spread before me was a small field electric with colorful, large heads of Dalhia Zinnias staring up at the sky.
Tasting some of the vegetables was fun, and put two varieties on my list for planting next year. Pink Ping Pong tomatoes were the size and shape of ping pong balls, with no similarity beyond that. The flavor was smooth and sweet, but not too sweet, and plants were still yielding well going into October.  Scarlet Ohno turnip sports a scarlet skin that encloses a white flesh having streaks of scarlet. After scraping two-inch diameter roots clean with my knife, I cut slices to eat; the flavor raw was excellent, right out in the field, no doubt enhanced by the surrounding forest getting ready to put on its autumn show, the bright sunlight, and the clear, blue sky. (Scarlet Ohno also tasted good the next day, sliced onto a plate on my kitchen table.)
A certain number of Hudson Valley Seed Library seed packets cry out to be looked at. No ho-hum drawings or photos on these packets. Ken commissions artists to do illustrations, not necessarily of the

vegetables or flowers, but of an artist’s representation of the particular variety. So Calico Popcorn’s packet, illustrated by Jacinta Bunnell, sports a line drawing of an ear of popcorn against a colorful calico backdrop. A German Shepherd — Ken’s old dog, Kale — with a mouthful of kale decorates the packet of Dino kale illustrated by Michael Truckpile.

The originals of each year’s new artpacks (not every variety gets an illustrated packet) are featured in an art show that begins locally and then travels around the country. To see the schedule, go to
As I sit here writing, yeast and Lactobacilli bacteria are having a field day, feasting on moistened wheat flour that’s expanding by the minute as carbon dioxide is generated and trapped in dough. My bread is rising, bread made from seeds I saved for eating — wheat — grown this summer.
I finally tired of looking at the red pillowcase of wheat seedheads that had been sitting on the floor in a corner of my kitchen since the end of July. Whacking the pillowcase was supposed to knock the wheat berries off the stalks; it didn’t, not sufficiently, at least. A reader suggested pounding the pillowcase with a shoe. I did it, and — voilà — one cup of wheat berries from a 15 square foot planting. I ground the wheat into a flour in a coffee grinder.
Fourteen hours later: The bread has been baked, cooled, and sliced. The flavor? Excellent, but no different from my other breads. The yield? One-third of a loaf.
I had wondered how much land would be needed to grow a loaf of bread and now I know: 45 square feet, at least for me, a beginner in grain growing. Average wheat yields in this country are about 40 bushels per acre, which translates to twice my yield, in which case a loaf could be squeezed out of about 23 square feet. However, wheat yields can run as high as 150 bushels per acre — something to strive for (a loaf from 6 square feet).

Three Fermentations

Here it is, 9:10 am in the morning, and I already feel very accomplished. Three fermentations are well under way. It’s fun and tasty working with our microbial friends.

The fun began last night when I scooped out a half a soup spoon’s worth of sourdough starter from a jar in the refrigerator to add to a mix of 3 cups of whole wheat flour, one and a quarter cups of water, and 1/8 cup of maple syrup. That sourdough starter is in its third year — here, at least. I carried it, dried, on a paper towel, back from Alaska, a gift from a friend there who said its caretaker’s ancestry traces back at least 100 years to . . .  was it governor or captain someone? I’ve kept the starter refreshed by stirring a teaspoonful of it every week or two with an eighth cup each of flour and water, and incubating it. The microbial population, a mix of various species of Lactobacillus bacteria and Saccharomyces yeast fungi, has no doubt shifted under my care; whatever the present population, it makes fine loaves of bread.

Back to the bread . . . I mix it in a breadmaker or by hand for a minute or so, incubate it 12 to 18 hours (depending on the temperature), dust it with flour and give it two light folds, let it rise again for a couple of hours, and then throw it (almost literally, and the hardest part) into a pre-heated baking dish from a 450° oven. Into the oven it goes: thirty minutes covered, 15 minutes uncovered, and voilá. Delicious, hearty, fragrant bread.

What’s this got to do with gardening? I wish I could report that I grew the wheat. I tried, last summer. Yields were lower than expected, exacerbated in part by difficulty in threshing it. Kernels were reluctant to part with seedheads despite severe batting of the heads in a pillowcase. I’ll try again, and hope to grow at least enough for one loaf of bread.
One of my sourdough yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, was invited to my second fermentation, the preparations for which began much earlier this morning. Actually, this second yeast was more probably a relative of the sourdough yeast, a different strain or species, one best suited to fermenting malt syrup into alcohol. The finished product, in this case, will be beer. Saccharomyces cerevisiae came in a sealed packet from a store although beers have been made by mere capture of wild yeasts floating around in the air.

The first step in my brewing was to boil malt extract with hops. I have grown barley, from which malt can be made. Note the “can be;” my barley crop of last year is still hanging, stems and all, from a kitchen rafter. I bought the malt extract rather than go through the threshing, sprouting, toasting, cracking, and sparging steps needed to extract malt from barley. Hops is easier; all you need is the dried seed heads. I grow hops, a decorative and fragrant plant, which is all my young plant is thus far. I also bought hops.

I did go out to the garden after the 45 minute boil to gather black currant leaves and clove currant fruits. These two aromatic plants, steeped along with more hops in the cooling malt-hop mix, will add a subtle and unique flavor to the batch of beer. 

Once diluted to 2 gallons, poured into a glass carboy, and cooled, the mix was spiked with the yeast. An airlock tube with water in it lets carbon dioxide exit without letting air in.

It’s now 1:30 pm in the afternoon, and already bubbling noises from the airlock offer evidence that the Saccharomyces are happily at work. Well, not working, just eating. In two weeks, they will have digested all they can and the brew will be ready for bottling.

Around here, compost-making — the third fermentation du jour, is always in progress. Composting is perhaps the most complicated and the easiest of all the fermentations.

This evening, I plan to get some manure to feed the panoply of microbes that call the compost piles home. Not that manure is necessary for making good compost. Basically, all that’s needed is any organic material, which is anything that is or was living. Microbes in my piles have been eating old lettuce plants, pulled weeds, banana and orange peels from the kitchen, some coarse, weedy hay I cut with my scythe, and occasional sprinklings of ground limestone, kelp, and soil.

Fermentation in the compost differs from that in sourdough bread and beer in that conditions and foodstuffs are always changing. If I add a bunch of material at once, temperatures within the pile rise rapidly, up to about 150° F. Different kinds of fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes become prominent within different temperature ranges. Also, different microbes become dominant depending on what foods I add to the pile and their stages of decomposition. For instance, old cornstalks are rich in lignin, which only certain fungi can use as food; once the fungi have gone to work on that lignin, certain bacteria might move in to work on byproducts, which include dead fungi.

Compost happens quickest when just the right balance of food, moisture, and air exist within a pile. The nice thing about making compost, though, is that whatever goes into the pile eventually becomes compost no matter what the foodstuffs or conditions. Sooner or later, compost happens

Compost is not, of course, for eating, but spread on the soil makes for some mighty tasty fruits and vegetables.

The fun part of working with these microbes is not only the tasty products that result, but the congenial blend of art and science that get you there.