One Sunday afternoon at the garden adjacent to Venice High School, a dozen or so people filed into a small, plain building, one by one, to get three or four tiny envelopes, each holding a few seeds.
That low-key but ambitious event marked the opening of the Seed Library of Los Angeles, an institution its founding members hope will provide free seeds to gardeners and become a preserve of local agricultural diversity.
Like-minded people in communities around the country are doing similar work: offering low-cost or free, local, open-pollinated, pesticide-free seeds. Members borrow seeds, grow plants, and allow a plant or two to go to seed at the end of the season. Those seeds are returned to the library, which will grow 10 of each batch to confirm purity before distributing the rest.
“People are drawn to seed libraries because they feel a certain powerlessness over their food supply,” said David King, who is garden master at the Learning Garden at Venice High and founder of the seed library. “They’re worried and angered by developments such as genetically engineered alfalfa.”
They also seem drawn to playing a role in the cycle of life that’s at once romantic and DIY-inspired.
Saving seeds is important work that carries “a sense of the sacred genetic information of our forefathers,” King told members at one meeting.
“What could be more poetic and life-sustaining than a seed library?” asked Sarah Spitz, a founding member of SLOLA, which members pronounce SLOW-lah.
Linda Preuss has been saving seeds for 20 years, and said she’s hooked on “a fantastic whole process you get to be involved in. It’s a great metaphor for life.”
“We just like to hold it in our hands. We like to see what color it is — one tiny basil seed that’s so tiny, you can hardly see it, and it will produce so much,” said Preuss, a computer consultant who is the seed library’s database chairwoman and who as a volunteer gardens with residents of a shelter for abused women and children.
On that first distribution day, in May, members took Tommy Toe tomatoes, White Dixie lima beans, Metki White cucumbers. Megan Bomba was among the volunteers who weighed seeds in fractions of a gram a tiny scale and wrote down who “borrowed” what.
“I’ve always been interested in seed saving, and it was a thought I had several years ago: Wouldn’t it be great if gardeners in L.A. could have a seed exchange?” Bomba said later. “I believe in people having access to those resources and being in charge of genetic resources.”
Members — about 85 people have joined so far — have hashed out best practices over chocolate mint tea (leaves from the Learning Garden) and homemade bread, as well as listened to the more experienced among them explain how to hand-pollinate flowers.
Library members adopted a “safe seed pledge” — a promise to “not knowingly buy, grow, share or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.” Lifetime membership is $10.
A refrigerator, donated by Spitz, keeps the seeds safe from rodents and insects. King expects it will be two years before the library needs more storage space.
The original library stock came from donations and seeds SLOLA purchased. Decisions about what to buy were based in part on members’ desires; King said he also hopes to survey some food professionals, too.
“I’m not a chef, but I’m a pretty good cook. I came up with 46 [ideas] without even an additional swallow of coffee,” King said during an interview at the garden, which is just shy of an acre and owned by Venice High School. The school uses 60%, and the community uses the rest through the nonprofit Learning Garden.
Early seed library members said they expected a lot of the saved seeds to be from native plants that thrive in the Southern California climate.
“The increased public interest in going native is just astonishing. It’s wonderful,” said Genevieve Arnold, seed room manager at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley. One inspiration, she said, is the region’s water shortage.
There also are plans for some experimenting.
King, for example, wants to come up with “a decent yellow paste tomato.” And down the road, he’d like to see a “seed-mobile,” along the lines of library book-mobiles, so the seeds will go to neighborhoods that need them, rather than requiring gardeners to come to Venice.
King acknowledges that, for now, SLOLA is mostly “white folk from the Westside,” but he and others mean for that to change. The library information eventually will be available in Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese and Italian.
Seed saving isn’t much more complicated than being something of a negligent gardener. Just let cilantro grow until it flowers and the seeds dry. Beans are just left on the vine. King expects many varieties of beans in the collection.
Some families of plants can use a gardener’s hand to maintain the seeds’ purity because if left to the bees or the wind, crops such as a zucchini and a pumpkin could cross-pollinate. Bomba gave a seminar one Sunday to instruct members on how to transfer the pollen to the flower by hand and then tape the petals shut.
It can be a profitable endeavor, as King explained: “So you can take out 3 ounces of seeds, get 45 pounds of beans and return 3 ounces of seed.”
Saving seeds is an ancient practice, of course, and there are hundreds of seed banks around the world. But libraries and exchanges are a newer phenomenon. Among the best known is Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based organization with 13,000 members— home gardeners, universities, market farmers around the country — and a catalog of thousands of seeds.
“Seed Savers is all about participatory preservation,” Executive Director John Torgrimson said. “The more people that are growing these varieties, the better chance that these varieties won’t be lost.”
Seed Savers began in 1975 with two seeds, a German pink tomato and a morning glory given to Diane Ott Whealy by her grandparents, Torgrimson said. Like family jewelry or money, immigrants frequently brought seeds to a new home — something they could plant to be reminded of their homeland, he said.
“You have to think of food as having been always on the move,” Torgrimson said.
Several seed libraries are in Northern California, including some housed in public libraries. Karen Schulkin helps keep one going in the Potrero Hill library branch in San Francisco. It’s open to everyone whether they have a library card or not. The seeds are in drawers, akin to an old-fashioned card catalog.
“When I saw all those seeds, it just makes you so excited. There’s so much potential there. It makes you think about everything — what you can grow, what you can eat,” Schulkin said. “This is a small way of trying to put power into local hands, to have that knowledge.”
Schulkin, a nurse, calls herself a beginner at the seed enterprise. So she plans to go to Seed School in Arizona, where Bill McDorman teaches genetics, history, breeding, the practical handling of seeds and some business. His students are interested in founding seed libraries or exchanges, or in starting their own companies, said McDorman, who has started three seed companies himself.
“I see Seed Savers Exchange as the beginning of a huge movement of people,” McDorman said. The growth of seed libraries “is the next stage” as home growers respond to a post-recession economy and to genetically engineered crops.
“All of our confidence has been shaken with the econ system being so fragile. Maybe it’s time to circle the wagons and learn to take care of ourselves a little bit,” he said.
“Thomas Jefferson was a great seed saver,” McDorman said. “This isn’t new, we’re just going back to what worked better. We’re really the conservatives in this.”
Look around online, and there’s another sort of seed saver: survivalists who have produced instructional videos about what to do in a disaster.
“I’m not interested in this sort of lifeboat thinking,” McDorman said. Even if you buy your survival seeds and you learn how to garden, he asked, how long will that last in a sea of hungry people? “The only real solution is community, is everyone having enough.”