Lately it seems like those colorful art packs from the Hudson Valley Seed Library are everywhere – or maybe it just feels that way because the seed packets are so eye-catching. Each one is designed by a different local artist in his or her own style, so each packet is unique; but the designs seem united, too, by the joyful vibe that they give off when grouped together. They’re so enticing that even non-gardeners have been known to develop a sudden yen to grow veggies and flowers.
Using local artists’ work is part of what the Hudson Valley Seed Library is all about, says founder Ken Greene. His purpose is not to preserve heirloom varieties of seeds as if they were historical objects, he says; it’s about bringing those varieties into modern-day use and making them contemporary again.
“Seeds are living organisms, and they’re going to change over time, depending on where they’re grown and how we select them,” explains Greene. “Every time a gardener or farmer chooses a plant [and saves its seeds], you’re changing that strain, that population in some way. What we’re doing is bringing these heirlooms back. I might find seeds in California of a New York heirloom, but it’s grown more and more adapted to California. We start doing selections and bring it back to being a real New York heirloom, which to me means a variety that’s really well-adapted to our region.”
And since there’s no other little seed production being done locally, Greene adds, and many big seed companies get their seeds from other parts of the country or outside of the country, a local seed-saver or someone who gets his or her seeds from the Seed Library has a real opportunity to preserve not only regional adaptations, but also diversity – in choosing seeds from the most delicious peppers, for example, or the most beautiful eggplants, to encourage those traits to continue in the next planting.
“That’s a big part of what the art on the seed packets is communicating,” says Greene.
When he first started the Seed Library in 2004, he did a lot of his initial research using antique seed catalogues from all over New York State. And unlike today’s seed catalogues, where glossy photographs are used to entice the reader, the old catalogues were beautifully illustrated with artwork contemporary to their time.
“That got me thinking about how there’s sort of a difference for me, thinking about a plant, when I’m looking at art versus looking at a product photograph,” Greene says. “I think the photographs really make people think that they’re supposed to grow this perfect thing, because the photographs are always of the best specimen, grown by a professional, and the photos might have been Photoshopped a little bit or color-saturated. When you look at a photograph you’re thinking about the commodity of it, the product of it, and you’re striving to grow something that probably isn’t going to look just like that photograph.”