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Seed Libraries Help Communities Grow

Seed libraries were a revolutionary concept when they first began to appear almost a generation ago. The earliest example I can find is BASIL, the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library founded at the Berkeley (California) Ecology Center back in 2000. The impetus for its founding came when University of California Berkeley closed its campus farm to make room for research into genetically modified corn. This left the farm’s collection of seeds homeless. Activists persuaded the Berkeley Ecology Center to sponsor a lending library that would make the seeds available to local gardeners, who in turn would harvest and return seeds from the crops they grew to make possible the next year’s distribution.

An example of a seed library hosted by the public Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. 

An example of a seed library hosted by the public Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. 

From there, the seed library concept took off, spreading throughout all 50 states so that a count in 2018 identified some 660 examples. The explosive success of this movement owes to a multi-faceted appeal. Not only do seed libraries offer patrons a free start in gardening, they can also make available seeds adapted to local growing conditions. Garden retailers tend to stock nationally distributed lines of best-selling seeds that are chosen for their ability to grow over a broad area. A seed library, which isn’t driven by the need for profit, can focus on what performs best in the local soils and climate.

Keri Ostby of the Rochester (Minnesota) Public Library manages that institution’s seed library. When I interviewed her, she explained how her charge also helps bring together disparate elements of the community. (Listen to our conversation on my podcast, Growing Greener.) The Rochester Seed Library stocks seeds of fruits and vegetables popular with various cultural groups, such as the Ethiopian kale that is a favorite of the city’s Somali population. Such seeds would not be available locally without the seed library. By including them in its offerings, the library not only reinforces the foodways of this subset of the local population, but it also helps introduce other residents to their neighbors’ cuisines.

Besides distributing seeds, seed libraries also encourage seed saving among their patrons, so that the loans can be repaid at the end of the growing season. This is why the vegetable, fruit and flower varieties that seed libraries distribute are typically open pollinated. That is, when pollinated naturally by insects, birds, or wind, the plants bear seeds that produce a new generation closely resembling the parents. Hybrids, the mainstay of conventional seed producers, do not “come true” in this fashion, and so they’re avoided by most seed libraries.

This has a couple of significant impacts. First, seed libraries tend to emphasize old-fashioned, heirloom plant varieties that originated before the modern emphasis on hybrid fruits and vegetables. In this way, seed libraries play a significant part in helping to keep such heirlooms available to gardeners. There may also be subtle variations within the populations of open-pollinated plant types. Different individuals within a strain of tomatoes, for example, may differ slightly genetically, with some a bit better adapted to local conditions than others. Because gardeners typically save seed from the more robust and fruitful specimens in their plots, they tend to preserve and propagate the best adapted individuals. Pursued over a number of plant generations, this practice encourages the gradual evolution of an ever-more locally adapted strain. In our era of climate change, seed saving also allows plant populations to evolve to suit changes in things such as rainfall patterns or summer heat. In this way, seed libraries are becoming ever more relevant to the needs of gardeners.

With the increasing need for seed libraries, sources of information about seed saving and the mechanics of a successful lending service have sprung up online. A particularly valuable resource is the Community Seed Network’s website. Founded in 2016, this organization makes available for free all sorts of information about seed saving and establishing community seed programs. Another useful resource is the “Start a Library” page of the Seed Libraries webpage.

Image credit: Herrick District Library/CC BY 2.0