Seed Libraries: Green-Thumbed Librarians
January 28th, 2014 by Hannah Doyle
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Public seed libraries are a relatively new phenomenon founded on centuries-old traditions of saving and sharing seeds. The purpose of seed libraries is to perpetuate plant varieties by making seeds available to local gardeners. In turn, they agree to let at least one plant go to seed and return seeds to the library.
Photo by Mike Teegarden

The seed was planted two years ago when Justine Hernandez was volunteering at the Community Food Bank Farmers Market of Southern Arizona as she watched parents help their children pick out produce donated by farms from Willcox, Amado and Glendale for that evening’s dinner.

“It was really intriguing to me,” says Justine, who works for the Pima County Public Library system in southeastern Arizona. “As a librarian, we are all about trying to devise ways to enable access (and find) the best possible resources to make things accessible.”

Justine thought there had to be a way to integrate food sharing at the Flowing Wells Branch Library in Tucson, allowing for easier access. Little did she know that would take the form of an old wooden cabinet that functioned as a card catalog in an earlier era.

“It was going to be small and low-key, with shoeboxes and a three-ring binder with forms that people could fill out,” Justine explains.

But the project grew bigger than expected. Members gained access to seed cabinets at eight Pima County branch library locations, with the option to reserve their seeds online.

A Communal Start

Just as there are different plant varieties, there are different kinds of seed libraries. Some take the form of wooden card catalogs in city libraries, while others function seasonally inside small bins at local churches or as monthly events.
Although the methods are different, the underlying theme is the same: community.

“They started kind of as a response to what was going on in the community,” Justine says. “There is a lot of interest in local food.”

Four years ago, The New York Times documented 10 seed-saving entities. Now, there are more than 55. You can find the ones nearest you at www.seedlibrarian.com.

Planting seeds from a seed library allows the seeds to adapt to the local climate and produce a better harvest each season. With each generation, greater varieties and hybrids can grow that cannot be found commercially.

Preserving the Seed

With any public sharing system—whether golf club rentals or library books—items start to show signs of wear and change. The same applies to seeds, which makes it all the more important for proper cultivation. However, you don’t need a green thumb to do it.

“We realize that if we can just get people to find seeds at their library and just start gardening or exploring these heirloom varieties, that’s a huge success in and of itself,” Justine says.

Fortunately, seed libraries have a built-in network of gardeners at all skill levels, and learning is as easy as asking.
Most seed libraries have a booklet or binder with directions on how to save seed, and many libraries host workshops on growing your skill level to graduate from harvesting tomatoes to more difficult varieties, such as squash.

Chris Price, manager of the Portland Seed Library in Portland, Oregon, says it is important to take the time to learn from workshops.

“For a squash, you have to know what you’re doing or else you won’t know if it has crossed or not,” Chris says. “For a tomato, it’s easy. It’s hard to collect that information that still makes it really fast and easy for people to use.”
What makes a seed more difficult to save than others is its potential to cross-pollinate.

While many gardeners breed different varieties and mix species on purpose, cross-pollination can happen by accident, with wind or bees carrying the pollen from one plant to another close by, tampering with the final harvest and, thus, its seed.

If unfamiliar with hand pollination, tenting and other isolation techniques for open pollinated plants, it is best to plant self-pollinating seeds to ensure a harvest the same as its parent plant, and prevent your harvest from being inedible or premature death.

Diverse Digging

Planting seeds from seed libraries allow cultivation of different colors and shapes that give the concept of free food new meaning.

When gardening open pollinated plants, your garden can hold more variety than can be found in your local grocer’s produce section.

Chris diversified his garden with ground cherry seeds he found at the Portland Seed Library. Also known as Physalis, ground cherries are a type of self-pollinating nightshade that grow similar to tomatillos.

“They almost taste like pineapple candy,” Chris says. “You don’t have to guess when they’re ripe. They’ll just fall off the plant.”

The sweet cherries are great for making pies and tarts, and have been a seasonal mainstay in Chris’ summer harvest.
While most seed libraries start out with donated seed from wholesalers, after a few generations and more donations from participating gardeners, different varieties can occur.

At the Pima County library in Arizona, the progress of certain seeds can be tracked through their directory.

“We have this digital record so we can see how many seeds in our collection are from the initial stock, which were donations from seeds across the country, and now we’re seeing seeds that have been locally saved and even more adapted to our environment,” Justine says.

Planting for the Future

Two years ago, librarian Justine Hernandez identified a way to combine books and seeds to enhance services for Pima County library visitors. Photo courtesy of Justine Hernandez

Two years ago, librarian Justine Hernandez identified a way to combine books and seeds to enhance services for Pima County library visitors.
Photo courtesy of Justine Hernandez

More than getting local and unusual plants, the communal nature of the seed library integrates learning and fulfillment similar to its literary counterparts.

“When you’re engaged in gardening or anything that takes you out of your home or TV or behind a computer monitor, there’s that natural inclination to engage with people,” Justine says.

Most seed libraries are embedded in another form of sharing, whether for books or household items, which offers an opportunity to swap skills that help outside the garden.

It helps makes connections between people who may not ordinarily interact, Justine says.

For seed libraries to work, altruism is involved. The gardener must allow a plant to grow past its ripening and harvest its seed for the sake of the next gardener.

“To watch it pass through the hands of future generations—for me it’s been the bonus to see that,” Justine says.