SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb.—Other little boys couldn’t wait for the Christmas catalog to come in the mail. Dave Mixdorf couldn’t wait to pore over pages filled with beets, broccoli and cabbage.
The arrival of a new seed catalog still brings a smile to his face. At 58, the South Sioux City Public Library director has turned his passion into a new program for fellow gardeners. He launched a library-based garden club in March, complete with a seed-saving program.
“It’s like borrowing a book, but you don’t get punished if you don’t bring it back . because crops do fail,” Mixdorf told the Sioux City Journal. “They bring back whatever they want.”
During monthly meetings, he offers members various packets of heirloom seeds, free for the taking. Some he had saved and others he had gotten from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The gardeners picked up packets of seeds to plant, and they’re encouraged to harvest and return some at the end of summer.
The South Sioux City Public Library is part of a rare but growing bunch of seed libraries scattered throughout the United States. A national listing shows at least 90, with only one other in Nebraska — the Omaha Public Library, which introduced a seed-sharing program this spring.
The idea is to ensure heirloom varieties of plants are available to gardeners, rather than seeds that have been genetically modified.
“Seed libraries are, right now, somewhat uncommon, but they are really gaining popularity,” said Grant Olson, education coordinator at Seed Savers Exchange, one of the largest seed banks in the country. The nonprofit organization has preserved thousands of heirloom garden varieties since its founding in 1975.
Olson said community seed-sharing programs foster food independence. Seed libraries like the one in South Sioux City allow members to “check out” seeds at no cost. He said that aspect breaks down the financial barrier and offers community members the opportunity to grow their own food.
Seed libraries also help preserve certain varieties of vegetables and provide communities with an alternative option to seeds distributed by large corporations, Olson said.
Anyone who wants to learn more about gardening and seed-saving can attend the monthly workshops at the South Sioux City Public Library, 2121 Dakota Ave. The garden club meets the first Thursday of each month, and Mixdorf said it’s not too late to join.
He plans to have speakers talk about different topics such as insects, composting and raised-bed gardening. He’s also kicking around the idea to have a homegrown tomato tasting in September for National Homesteading Month.
Members will learn more about the seed-saving process throughout the summer. At the April meeting, Mixdorf had a couple of flats of tomato plants on display during his talk about seed-starting.
“These are the grandchildren,” he told the small crowd, sweeping his hand over the seedlings.
The occasion brought together about half a dozen gardeners, forming a tight-knit group.
Glenda Frank and Susan Smith revealed that they share more in common than a fence between their South Sioux City homes. Both have a bit of a green thumb and a love of fresh flowers. The women were digging around in the dirt before they arrived.
“We’re excited to get started,” Frank said. She took home seeds for tomatoes, peppers and green beans at the first meeting.
Vera Hamar, of Jackson, Neb., said she had been out digging all day, too.
“I’m ready to plant as soon as it’s warm enough,” she said.
Mixdorf has a head start on that. About 900 tomato plants sprouted under fluorescent lights in his South Sioux City apartment. He told police about his overgrown hobby so the glow wouldn’t draw suspicion from onlookers.
More heirloom varieties are growing at the family-owned farm in Thayer, Iowa. Prairie Hilltop Farm is home to the Mixdorf family’s 100-year-old rhubarb.
“Every time we moved, we dug it up and moved it with us,” he said. “You’re keeping a certain variety alive.”
And the history, too.
Growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, Mixdorf remembers pulling weeds in the garden when he was 6 years old, but he’s convinced his father probably had him crawling around the leafy greens when he was 3.
“Once you have dirt under your fingernails,” he said, “it’s hard to get it out.”