'Seed library' opens in Healdsburg

January 14, 2014
Ann Carranza
Press Democrat

Above: Rebecca Goodsell, Carolyn Harrison and Head Librarian Bo Simons show the new seed library in an old card catalog. (Photo: Ann Carranza)

Get your vegetable garden seeds at the library? How can you “borrow” a seed? The movement to share seeds is growing across the globe and the Healdsburg Regional Library is the newest venue where community members can “borrow” seed.

Anyone can borrow seeds from the seed library because it’s not really borrowing at all. The seeds are there for the taking and there are no residency or library card requirements. Anyone taking seeds to plant can is invited to share the seeds by bringing seeds from their planted crop to the library. It’s an honor system that has proven to work in other places.

Rules and information handouts will be provided at the library in English and Spanish, as will small envelopes to carry seed home.

Seeds will be labeled for ease of saving, ranging from a green starred “super easy” category of seeds, like some squashes and bean, to the more labor-intensive ones to save, like tomatoes.

Seed providers will have to give a minimum amount of information about donated seeds. They’ll need to include the genus and species (variety), area the seed was grown, the year of harvest and the days to maturity.

They are unsure if they will turn away seeds, and are taking the “wait and see what arises” approach to such decisions. Organizers of the project understand they will continue to learn and grow along with the seeds.

The driving force behind the Healdsburg Seed Library is Carolyn Harrison, gardener, once-owner of Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, and a member of Transition Healdsburg. Transition Healdsburg is an organization of volunteers working for a “more resilient and energy saving city.”  Members will supply volunteer labor for the upkeep of the seed library.

“I want people to know that they can be more self-sufficient,” said Harrison. “Gardening is something most people can do, and if push came to shove, we have a resource here – a repository for seeds – that belong to the community. In the end, it may get more people to garden.”

Harrison has a long gardening history. She and her husband, Terry, owned Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, where the produced the rootstock and grafted heritage apples for sale. Their gardening efforts expanded to cultivating seeds for seed companies, after a season of growing green beans, with little to show for the effort.

“We needed to have an alternate crop, so we planted green beans one year between the rows of apple stock,” said Harrison. “Those beans were so vigorous they got in the way of budding our apples, and when we sold the beans to a small local grocery, the price we got wasn’t worth it.”

They got the idea of supplying seeds at the Ecological Farming Conference one year in Asolimar, near Monterey. They spoke with seed company representatives with display booths at the conference and asked if there was any interest in seed growers. “When they found out we were from Healdsburg, with its long growing season, they were interested,” said Harrison.

Harrison, who is semiretired, has a background as a librarian and is an avid gardener. Her experiences as a seed supplier for Seeds of Change and Renee’s Garden Seeds, make her a natural for this project. The Harrisons care for their garden and orchard on Westside Road.

Harrison first became involved in Transition Healdsburg in 2012. Transition towns work toward local sustainability and resiliency. When she attended the “Economics of Happiness” conference in Berkeley that year, she spoke with a “woman from Albany,” who was building a seed bank. Seed libraries can offer local food resiliency.

“Ooh, I want to do that,” she remembered thinking during the conversation. She visited the Richmond Seed Library to gather ideas and support for the development of the Healdsburg Seed Library. A seed library was “right up her alley,” because of her experiences as a gardener and seed saver.

“I want people to know they can do more for themselves,” she said. “We have resources – the seeds – that improve the potential for local sustainability.”

The idea of providing seeds through the library system is also growing. In California, cities and towns from Richmond to Potter Valley offer seed libraries, also known as seed banks, at their local public libraries. In addition, there are locations across the United States from Alaska to West Virginia adding seed libraries to a variety of locations, including libraries, within their communities.

Harrison and Goodsell have both donated seeds for the project, as has Strong Arm Farm. Some seeds are partial packages leftover from last year. Some seeds are prolific growers that produced a lot of fruit and seeds, like Harrison’s Sucrine du Bery winter squash seeds.

Healdsburg Head Librarian Bo Simons supports the endeavor. He even requisitioned an old card catalogue from the Sonoma County Library system to hold the seeds.

“They were ‘decommissioning’ the catalogue,” said Simons. “So I requisitioned it for our library and it is a good size to hold seeds.”

Simons hopes the project supports and reflects Healdsburg’s “personality” and its agrarian roots. “We have the Future Farmers’ Twilight Parade, farm to table, wine reflecting terroir, why not seeds,” Simons asked rhetorically.

Harrison has the support of Rebecca Goodsell, a Master Gardener and president of the Friends of the Healdsburg Library. Goodsell offers her expertise in gardening to the project, as well.

“People have gotten concerned about food safety,” said Goodsell. They are both concerned with GMO contamination, terminator seeds (seeds that cannot be saved because of low germination rates) and pesticide usage

Goodsell is excited about the project and is particularly enthusiastic of the idea that they are “growing future gardeners,” with the seeds for children. “The circle of life is in the cycle of seed,” said Goodsell. “From seed to plant, then back to seed to be planted again…that’s what we want them to experience.

“I don’t know that we can be self-sufficient,” she said. “We don’t live that way anymore, we’re used to buying what we want at the store but we’ve moved away from things like preserving and canning. Maybe we can get some of that back.”

She talked of her grandparents canning and drying food every summer and fall. And eating the harvest. “They dried sweet corn, and in the winter they reconstituted it in milk,” she continued. “All that sweet goodness, served warm.”

Harrison and her crew, including Goodsell, did germination tests on some donated seeds. Seeds that are more than a year old, may not germinate at a high enough percentage to be viable. These seed advocates expect an 80% germination rate for seeds to “qualify” for library exchanges. The Seed Library organizers do not expect to do germination tests on most seeds, only those that are “suspect” due to age or visible reasons. Experienced gardeners will look through the seed catalog regularly to inspect and straighten up the cabinet and to assess any reasons to change the way it operates.

Saving seed can be a simple or tedious task depending on the type. Green beans, lettuce and squash are three of the easiest to save. Tomatoes are more challenging because the seeds have to go through a fermentation process.

Bean seeds can be dried right on the vine, then finished off in a warm, dry space. Harrison uses her loft to dry seeds. “That’s where all the heat is,” she said with a laugh. If you’re drying pole beans on the vine you’ll want your seed pod to “crackle” when you open it. It’s important to let vegetables mature on the vine for beans, or “cure” in the case of a winter squash.  The curing process is allowing two weeks from the time of picking before harvesting the seed. Seeds will need to be soaked overnight to remove the fibrous filaments, then dried thoroughly before storing in paper envelopes, metal tins or glass jars. Harrison says she likes to use muffin tins, which also keep the rodents out.

In addition, the Friends of the Healdsburg Library have been supportive of the project. Harrison has requested a small grant from them to support the concept.

“People in Sonoma County ‘get it,’ said Harrison saying that library patrons were observing their work with interest. “We’ve built it, I think it will grow.”

If you want to check it out, the seed library is open during normal library hours, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.  and Saturday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.  The library is closed on Sunday and Mondays. The Healdsburg Regional Library is located at 139 Piper St.

The Healdsburg Regional Library is also the home of the Sonoma County Wine Library.

Two seeds available at the library:

“Nono’s beans.” Italian octogenarian Fred Revetria, who lives in Sebastopol shared these seeds with Rebecca Goodsell. “He told his grandson that these are ‘nono’s nono’s beans. They’ve been in the family that long,” said Goodsell. They are meaty bean and prolific producers. Eat them at three stages of growth: young in the pod, stewed without the pod when they are a little older, or leave them on the vine to dry completely and then use them as a soup bean in the winter. “They look like coffee-marble ice cream,” said Goodsell. “You can even use them in art projects.”

“Yellow bush beans.” “I grew them last summer. They’re tasty and easy to grow. I grew up eating yellow beans in Michigan but when I couldn’t find them out here, I started growing my own. They are very easy to save,” said Goodsell.

And one that is not:

And a seed savers dilemma. She had an “unknown squash” that she grew out and it gave her the most wonderful butternut squash that she now allows to self-seed by composting them in the garden. But, because she doesn’t know what they are, they won’t be found in the library.

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