Plant a library in your garden, then step back and watch what happens. Little Free Libraries give you a chance to cultivate relationships and your garden at the same time.
Little Free Libraries are small, freestanding libraries, on the scale of an extra-large mailbox. They're mounted on a sturdy post in the front yard, usually close to the sidewalk, and stocked (by you) with a limited, but choice, selection of books. Neighbors, dog-walkers and passers-by can take a book from the library or leave a book of their own. Each book is one of a kind, and the inventory is constantly turning over.
These little libraries can be designed and painted to look like schoolhouses, barns, fire stations or cozy bungalows. By their very nature, they are garden art. Like a child's playhouse, a potting shed or even a big urn on a pedestal, they add an architectural element to the garden, which in turn opens up opportunities for interesting landscaping around them. But there is more to these structures than garden decor. They reveal something more than flowers do about your interests and your aesthetic sense, and they're likely to start a few neighborly conversations.
When you install a Little Free Library in your garden, you're joining an informal worldwide network of like-minded people. The Little Free Library movement, which started in Wisconsin in 2009, has grown into a far-flung community of 50,000 Little Free Libraries, which are found in all 50 states and more than 70 countries. By the end of 2017, the organization hopes to double the number of little libraries, to 100,000.
Gardens and reading go pretty naturally hand in hand. Good gardening always requires a fair amount of homework, for one thing, and escaping to the garden with a good book is a time-honored way to take a break from the busy, buzzing world. Reading in a garden, in the company of birds and flowers, really does make the workaday world seem far away. Some Little Free Libraries incorporate a bench into their designs, so people curious about the books can sit down and have a look before they make a selection.
Having a Little Free Library in the front yard also changes the dynamics of your garden and your neighborhood. Passers-by and neighbors may have always taken an interest in your landscaping, but when they stop to peruse the selection of books in the library, they have an excuse to look around at the garden more closely than they otherwise might. If you happen to be outside when someone stops to check out the books, you might find yourself answering questions about your favorite hostas or the best way to prune hydrangeas -- and a neighborly conversation is off to a good start.
Place a few steppingstones around the base of your library, and make room for a few tough and hardy plants. Sedums, daylilies, mums, daisies and small evergreen shrubs will enliven the space and the library, and will also shrug off a certain amount of wear and tear. Avoid plants with thorns: This is not the place for shrub roses or prickly cactus.
Enhance your visitors' experience of your Little Free Library with some fragrant plants. This would be a good spot for a pot of mint or some rosemary, basil or thyme.
Climbing plants, such as an annual black-eyed Susan vine or a perennial clematis, will clamber happily up the post and make your little library look like an old-fashioned cottage in a garden. To help bring the garden up to eye level, you could even put a green roof on your library; try succulents, mosses, small ornamental grasses (such as blue fescue) or even a strip of turf from a garden shop. You can easily cut the grass on the roof with a pair of kitchen scissors.
James Baggett, the editor of Country Gardens magazine, maintains a Little Free Library in Des Moines, Iowa. He shares the task with a neighbor, a little girl who has been his assistant librarian since she was 9 years old. Together, they stock their little library with books for young adults and for grown-ups, too. "I like to think ours is one of the better-curated Little Free Libraries," Baggett says.
There are no rules for stocking your library. Gardening books are fine -- as are field guides, cookbooks and picture books for kids. After a short time, you'll begin to get a feel for the books that are popular with borrowers and contributors in your neighborhood.
The seasons will come and go, and your library visitors will get to know your garden pretty well: When they tuck a book under their arm, you can bet they're also borrowing a few gardening ideas to take home to their own yard. Maybe they'll even plant a library of their own, and the word will keep spreading.
-- Most communities welcome Little Free Libraries, but before you put up a little library in your garden, check local zoning laws. The Little Free Library website (littlefreelibrary.org) includes how-to information and FAQs that may help. The website also has links to plans, kits and prebuilt libraries.
-- Several Etsy shops specialize in ready-made Little Free Libraries. (etsy.com)
-- There is even a book about Little Free Libraries; "The Little Free Library Book," by Margret Aldrich (Coffee House Press, $20).
-- For more ideas, check Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr.