Chico Seed Lending Library brings the traditional practice seed-saving out of the shadows
If you’ve ever saved a tomato seed from your garden and “grown it out” into a plant the following spring, you know the feeling. Even if you’ve just made room for a few volunteer plants that came up in the compost pile, you get it: the feeling of unlocking an arcane mystery, participating in an ancient tradition.
Becoming a seed saver is a bit like joining a secret society, one that respects the uniqueness—and potential—of each seed. And four Chico women have begun to organize a way for Chicoans to reconnect to that largely lost tradition.
In February, the Chico Seed Lending Library (CSLL) quietly announced its fledgling presence on Facebook. The brainchild of Sherri Scott (GRUB Education Program), Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper and Joan Bosque (both of Chico Permaculture Guild), the objective of CSLL—still in the formative stage—is to promote the saving and sharing of open-pollinated vegetable seeds, and to bring this once-common practice back out of the shadows.
Not so long ago, saving seeds was anything but secret. Neighbors shared seeds over the garden fence, often unique varieties that had been in the family for generations, each one a link in a chain of growers, some extending back thousands of years.
Each season, by selecting seeds from the largest and healthiest specimens, the plants adapted a little more to the climate and conditions of the region, weaving in a sort of genetic signature of the communities in which they grew. The result was a diverse, resilient and highly localized food supply. Following the exodus of rural populations into cities, many of these traditional skills were forgotten and thousands of heirloom seed varieties became extinct.
Since that first dispatch in February, the work on building CSLL has been ongoing, and the growth has been of the invisible kind so familiar to the home gardener: the crucial yet unspectacular development of roots. Communicating, forging connections, developing policy, soliciting donations. Scott and Ladwig-Cooper went on the road seeking inspiration from other seed libraries in the Bay Area, and came back loaded with notes, brochures, new ideas and new alliances.
When it came to finding a home for the seed collection, the Chico branch of the Butte County Library seemed an obvious choice. The three women approached branch librarian Sarah Vantrease about a partnership, and she was immediately on board.
“It’s really meaningful to have community seeds in a community library,” Vantrease said at a recent project-strategy meeting. “The public library is a really neutral place in town where people from all walks come in, and all are welcome.”
Interested gardeners with a Butte County Library card will be able to browse the seed library’s collection, choose what they’d like to plant, check out the seeds and grow them. At the end of the growing season, they will collect seeds from their healthiest plants and return them to the library where they are sorted and catalogued for the following season. Seeds are alive, and can avoid extinction only by being regularly grown out by informed gardeners.
But it’s not always a simple process. Some seeds require intricate cultivation strategies in order to “breed true” to the parent plant. Squash flowers, for example, require insects for pollination. When a bee enters your squash flower carrying pollen from another variety in a neighbor’s yard, the plant will still produce the desired butternut or pumpkin, but seed saved from that fruit will grow a strange-looking and often unpalatable hybrid. To ensure varietal purity, hand pollination and bagging or taping flowers shut is required.
But there’s good news for legume lovers: “Peas and beans are the easiest,” said Ladwig-Cooper. “They actually self-pollinate, and they pollinate before the flower opens all the way,” making cross-pollination unlikely.
To help gardeners orient themselves, seeds will be rated on a challenge scale: super-easy, easy, and difficult. CSLL will also regularly host instructional workshops and skill-shares. There will be educational materials on hand, which they’d like to make available in Spanish and Hmong.
“We’re really hoping to engage other community organizations” in CSLL’s educational efforts, Ladwig-Cooper said, mentioning the Chico Grange, the Butte County Master Gardeners Program, and 4-H, among others. “That way it becomes an outreach hub for other organizations to get involved with both the seed library and the library, and then outreach to the community about what they’re [working on].”
There are some folks in Chico who have already been working quietly in their gardens to keep the tradition alive. Scott said she’s met a few of them at the Seed Swap, the annual free seed exchange she and Ladwig-Cooper organized at the GRUB Cooperative.
“There are a number of people who are secret backyard breeders who didn’t have anyone to share with except for maybe a couple neighbors,” Scott said. “They were so excited to come out” and share the regionally adapted varieties they’d been developing. She hopes to elicit their participation in the CSLL.
The seeds will be located in the middle of the library, along with chairs, educational materials and the Chico branch’s entire collection of gardening books, which Vantrease said are in high demand.
“Of the gardening books we have, which is in the hundreds, half are checked out on any given day,” she said. She’d like to expand that collection with books donated from supporters.
Donated materials and the donated time of volunteers will be the life blood of the project. So far there are more than 30 volunteers on the signup sheet, and more are welcome as the word gets out. Donations of seeds, stamps, envelopes and money are also appreciated. Monetary donations earmarked for CSLL can be made through the county library.
There will be a produce exchange at the library at the end of July to raise awareness for the project, and CSLL’s kickoff event will be held there sometime in October. Until then, keep your backs strong and your spades poised, and get ready for a new way to “go local.”