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Marin IJ Articles

Seed libraries offer roots to the past

  • Jane Scurich
  • Seed collection is as old as, well — seeds.

    It’s a bit of a chicken or an egg question: What came first? The most delectable succulent tomato you ever devoured or the seed for that tasty delight?

    Generations of families have carefully collected seeds of their favorite plants and stored them for the next season.

    But collecting seeds in hopes of that perfect fruit … why should you bother? Seeds are available virtually everywhere these days: The drug store, grocery, big-box stores and nurseries all seem to have racks of flower, herb and veggie seeds available year-round.

    Rebecca Newburn, cofounder of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, recently spoke to the UC Marin Master Gardeners on the importance of seed collection and sharing.

    Among the amazing facts she shared:

    • More than 97 percent of the vegetable varieties offered commercially in 1903 do not exist today.

    • There were 100,000 varieties of rice in 1970, but now only about 2,000 remain.

    Newburn has been instrumental in establishing a free seed lending library located in the Richmond Public Library. Additionally, she developed a “create a library” model that has helped hundreds of seed libraries open around the world.

    She is also a leader in the National Save Seed Sharing Campaign that advocates for our right to share local seeds. We’re fortunate to have Newburn as a local teacher of math and science at Hall Middle School, where she also set up a seed library stocked with seeds saved by her students.

    I vividly recall a speaker at a UC Marin Master Gardener continuing education class some years ago who spoke to the importance of using locally grown seed for the best crop production. I have to paraphrase his engaging remarks that have remained with me for years. In a memorable presentation, he spoke about a lettuce seed accustomed to the cold, damp spring in North Dakota waking up in total disbelief in a Northern California garden in a warm February. (You probably had to be there — but trust me, this image is forever impressed in my memory bank!).

    What we do know? Over time, plants will change in response to our local climate and soil, and gradually become better seeds for our area.

    The startling loss of plant varieties cited by Newburn translates into lower genetic variability in our food plants. This lack of variability tends to lower plants’ adaptability to the stress of disease and climate change. Once a seed variety is lost, there is one less opportunity to feed our growing population.

    As a Mill Valley resident, I am delighted to have a seed library in our local library. I am experimenting with a number of borrowed seeds and I encourage you to get involved. This lending program was established in memory of Jean Canapa, a passionate gardener and longtime volunteer at the Mill Valley Library.

    Seed libraries may operate in a few different ways. Some facilitate seed exchanges where people gather at a library to exchange seeds — and hopefully knowledge about growing. Others act as lending libraries: Members check out seeds, grow them, save seed and return harvested seed to the collection.

    Seed Smart Mill Valley operates this way:

    • Borrow: Select up to six packets from the SeedSmart library and check them out with your library card (just like books).

    • Grow: Plant the seeds.

    • Share: Harvest seeds from a mature plant and return in original seed package to the reference desk at the Mill Valley Library. Make sure you fill out a donation form with as much information as possible so the next grower knows what to expect. Adding a photo is also helpful.

    Learn more by browsing the gardening book collection at the library, attending a workshop or checking out the website for great online resources.