Gardening is often regarded as an activity with numerous benefits for one’s health. However, getting started with the hobby can be intimidating; how to care for different seeds, what are the differences between different types of soils, and the list goes on. Libraries, as central hubs of their communities, have the unique opportunity to be able to offer a safe space for everyone to learn how to grow and tend for plants. Below is the story of Danielle, who successfully implemented a gardening club at her library branch.

Gardening at libraries

It is a personal belief of mine that Libraries should have a social conscious. I have just finished my first year of a Post Graduate Diploma in Library and Information Management and the phrase, ‘community hub’ has been attached to libraries in a lot of the reading material. The idea asserts that libraries should be at the heart of the communities they serve and run programs that meet the needs of people in their locality. I believe there is room for these people hubs to become much more than just the heart of their communities. They could play an active role in helping people through whatever current social crisis is affecting their daily lives.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we moved our in-branch services to virtual platforms, making library information, entertainment, and comfort accessible even though our buildings were closed. We are all very aware there are arguably even greater challenges ahead: the cost-of-living crisis and global warming. I don’t know anybody in my community who has not been affected. I’ve started cycling to work a few days a week to cut fuel costs and reduce my carbon footprint. I started thinking about how my library could help the people in my community. Could I find a way to provide sustenance and help the people around me become more aware of the climate crisis?

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Sowing the seeds

I am the current branch manager of a medium sized, Northern Irish library which is set in what was one of the largest estates in Europe. Northern Ireland has a rich history and political landscape. I have had many international friends come over to visit and I discuss our history with them but the one thing they are always amazed by in our country, is the warmth and the kindness they find in our communities. I feel like our libraries are a reflection of this because in our branches, you can really feel the warmth of human interaction and you will always find friendly smiles. During Covid-19, there were so many people who missed this and the regular interaction it brought them. It’s been a wonderful thing to welcome everyone back and reconnect our communities.

The current cost of living crisis has hit many communities in the UK hard. There is a lot of social and economic deprivation. Many more people are turning to food banks to help them provide for not just themselves but their families too. With all of this going on, it blew my mind that people still come into my library with treats for our staff. It just showed me how much people appreciate our library and how a day of heating, electricity, Wi-Fi, computer use, and arguably most important a welcoming environment, is helping local people during this crisis.

I am very lucky that I have a skilled gardener in my library team. He was always showing me pictures of his wonderfully, lush, and green lawn and the flowers he grows. I thought, ok we should utilise these skills and start a gardening club. I hoped that we could start small but that this could all grow one day into a community garden that could start to provide fresh produce for our community.

Growing and nurturing

I faced challenges in setting up the garden because I wanted to make sure my garden was safe and that it got enough sunlight for everything to grow, so I needed something that could be mobile. I got plastic containers that could easily be put on wheels. I got children’s gardening tools which do not have the same sharp edges as adult gardening tools, to cut out any risk to anyone’s health and safety.

Our first Gardening Club was so well attended, and it has only (pardon the pun) grown from there. I have extended the program to include children’s gardening sessions and a large courgette plant that I planted from seed, is now almost ready to provide fresh produce to my users. The locals have told me that it’s helping them to grow their plants, widen their gardening knowledge, and give them quality information on how to grow certain crops but most importantly it is also helping them improve their mental health. It’s really powerful to plant a seed, nurture it, watch it grow, and then to finally watch it bear fruit. It reminds me of a quote from my favourite philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“What is success?
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

Little Lettuce

Some plants from the library; the courgette plant (left) and a lettuce growing

Reaping the benefits

I use that quote to measure the success of my branch. You can enter my library on a Friday afternoon for the gardening club and feel the warmth of the people. You’ll see the expertise of the staff and the quality of the information they provide. You will see us physically trying to make a difference in our community. I told the locals at our last session that I want us to leave a legacy for our community. We could plant that seed among more of our community and get more people involved. I want the locals to use the skills they have all gained in the club to share their knowledge with their families and friends. Eventually, we can turn our wee, mostly concrete, estate, and others just like it, a bit greener every day.

I have also now added a seed library which will operate like a seed exchange service and will also provide instructions on how to grow the seeds. It will allow the community to share their produce. If they grow an amazing poppy one year or produce some tasty veg the next, they can add their seeds to the library, along with their instructions on how they grew their plants and it will start benefiting the whole community. Our gardening club has grown fruit in so many ways, and not just physically through the plants we have but metaphorically too.

Carrots And Beetroots

Some carrots and beetroots from the library

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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Danielle Thomas

My name is Danielle and I have been the manager of a Northern Irish public library branch since January 2022 but I have worked for libraries since 2016. I am a Post Graduate Student in Library and Information Management at the University of Ulster. I have always loved books but I am first and foremost a people person. I like to know that what I am doing is making a difference and it was one of the biggest reasons I went into libraries. It also helped that my granny had always been telling me I was going to make an amazing librarian. She was right and I have never looked back! When I’m not in the library, I am out with my cocker spaniels enjoying the fresh air or I can be found in the sea being a proud member of the Bluetit Chill swimming community.

Reach me via twitter: @Danichocolit

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