Wylie House Museum seed giveaway program ushers in the spring growing season

IU Libraries' Wylie House Museum is hoping to promote growth and welcome new beginnings in Bloomington for the spring season.

In lieu of its annual heirloom seed sale, the Wylie House will be holding a seed giveaway program during March. Each Friday afternoon, guests can drop by between noon and 5 p.m. to receive up to five packets of seeds at the Morton C. Bradley Jr. Education Center, adjacent to the Wylie House.

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A sprout station is set up at a Wylie House seed sale in 2016. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

"It's a way for the Wylie House to connect to the community and support local growers," said Carey Champion, Wylie House director and assistant librarian. "That includes students and IU faculty and staff, but also local Bloomington people and people who travel from other counties to get heirloom varieties. It's exciting because we meet the needs of a lot of gardeners and growers."

All of the seeds are grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, Champion said. They also try to grow varieties that would have been available to IU's first president, Andrew Wylie, and his family during their time in residence in the 1840s.

"The event is educational about the Wylie House, but also about heirloom seeds," Champion said. "These seeds have historic importance, as well as critical contemporary importance in regard to biodiversity and sustainability."

The decision to turn the annual event into a giveaway rather than a sale came after several challenges the Wylie House faced in 2020 that affected the number of seeds harvested. Their outdoor interpreter retired, and COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult for staff and volunteers to access the garden at a crucial time.

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The seed giveaway will be held in the Morton C. Bradley Jr. Education Center, seen in this photo from April 26, 2018. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

"Our gardener wasn't able to do that early work preparing the garden and planting new varieties, and then wasn't able to well-maintain those that were coming back," Champion said. "We still had a lot of seeds, just not as many as usual. The COVID-19 pandemic limited our variety."

Despite these difficulties, the Wylie House had the help of student volunteers who became integral to the seed-saving program. Emma Smith, a fourth-year English literature student and Wylie House student employee, helped maintain the garden throughout the summer and fall. At the end of the growing season, Smith harvested and cleaned the seeds.

"My favorite part has probably been packaging the seeds for people who really care about the Wylie House Museum, the promotion of genetic biodiversity and heirloom seeds in general," Smith said. "It is a real blessing to have the patronage that we do."

Mary Figueroa, a graduate student in history and library science and Wylie House student employee, became involved in the project after Champion suggested adapting the annual sale. She began helping Smith inventory the seeds, which they later packaged and compiled instructions for.

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Wylie House student employees Emma Smith, left, and Lauren Schumacher stand in the heirloom garden. Photo courtesy of IU Libraries

"I started working at Wylie House during my undergraduate time at IU and have now been with the museum for five years," Figueroa said. "During this time, I've really grown to appreciate the Heirloom Garden and the seed program, especially because the garden and seeds offer an opportunity for building community."

Champion knew the pandemic would also impact how they'd distribute the seeds at the annual event. As the sale typically attracts 200 to 300 people, she decided that having a one-day event would not be safe. She made plans to spread the event out over several weeks to diffuse the number of people picking up seeds at the same time.

"All of the COVID-19 safety practices will be in place, people will need to be masked, and we'll make sure people are spread out," Champion said.