Saturday, November 17, 2018

Regarding Best Practices and Seed Inventories of SLOLA Branches

This paper is to address a few discrepancies in the last several months that are a significant part of the core concepts by which the Seed Library of Los Angeles was founded. This paper begins to establish a network for the management of the inventories each library has and those concepts. The addition of the Sepulveda Branch brought out several facts that need to be recalled:

  1. Never should any hybrids be offered as a part of SLOLA inventory. Hybrids are not likely to bear true and this has several ramifications – specifically, borrowers are given a false sense of our priorities and of the capabilities of hybrid seeds, at minimum, granting permission for them to feel that hybrid seeds are not only condoned, but must be replantable to be saved in the future; and that SLOLA believes hybrids are A-OK. Neither assumption is true. Our founding documents make it very clear that SLOLA does not condone or offer hybrid seeds at any time under any condition. It is better that we not have seeds than have hybrid seeds. This is in no way negotiable.  
  2. SLOLA libraries should have different inventories at all times. The exact proportion of inventories is dependent on the number of members and availability of seeds appropriate to the microclimate served by the branch. The easy way to determine this is to look at a Sunset Western Garden Guide and use the Sunset Zones described in the beginning of the book. More than any other publication on gardening, the Sunset Zones allow a gardener to become intimately connected to the garden conditions in that area.

        For example, in setting up the Sepulveda Branch, we ascertained that their zones were much more appropriate for melons, cucurbits, large tomatoes, squash and sweet corn than the gardens of Mar Vista and Venice. Hence, the majority of those seeds went to them.
  1. Inventories should include seeds returned, and seeds should be returned to the library where they were dispensed. This restocks the shelves with seeds already moving towards a variety adapted to those conditions specifically.
We are looking for “hyper-local” seeds in the end. All branches, for example, might include Burbank Slicer Tomato, but in several generations seeds at each branch, differences in growth should begin to be apparent. Once the seeds have segregated, only in case of a disastrous loss should the other branches step in to help another branch – unless there are plenty of extra seeds on hand. Of course, branches may share seeds for cross-polination experiments, or if one branch has rare seeds that have been procured locally, those seeds should be shared with other branches as soon as possible to prevent a catastrophe at one branch from loosing all the seeds.

This is very simple. Whatever will work to save seeds and to build hyper local productivity should be every librarian's goal. As SLOLA matures and every branch's seed diversify, I remain grateful for the support in bringing seeds to new communities and reinvesting others with the spirit of the seeds. All of this encourages us, as seed savers and seed stewards, towards creating solid educational programs that all of us can use for the betterment of the communities' seed independence and seed sovereignty for years to come. Our part in this is vital.

To prioritize plainly:

  1. Save the seed/save the variety; save the name. Using the Ark of Taste as one guideline, we could also reach out into our communities (i.e. community gardens) and find the growers of seeds that are not readily available and commit to save those varieties and not lose the significance of their origins.
  2. Share the seeds when you have enough to share without fear of losing all your seeds; SLOLA chapters could come together for an Annual Seed Swap among all the branches to meet and greet one another and seed savers from each branch could be recognized for their efforts in saving local varieties of seed.
  3. Historical seeds from local gardeners and farmers should be shared with other branches as soon as any give branch has sufficient inventory. Each branch is encouraged to find ways of bringing seeds and the stories about them to their branches and disseminate the stories with the seeds as a branch project.
  4. Germane to the idea of branches saving seeds, we also need to preserve the story about those seeds! Programs might be developed around stories of the seeds, whether they come from local individuals or stories that come to us from other sources. At some time in the future, such stories could be put into book form for further dissemination.
At this time, (November 2018), SLOLA, recognizing the difficulty of saving certain seeds would rather all but the most experienced seed savers, simply check out seeds of the Cabbage family and not attempt to return the seed. Experience of some of our best seed savers suggest that saving seed from plants (for example, the cabbage family) is simply impossible. It would be better to have no seed in stock than to have seeds that won't come true. An ounce or two of seeds for these plants should be inexpensive enough and it would be better to have seed that can be produces true. At some time in the future, we may have the ability to produce good seed for the Brassicaceae, but until then, let's just buy the seeds. Corn, because of population sizes to keep the varieties healthy is another one we should buy seeds until we can find the land and the volunteers to keep varieties viable.

David King
Best Practices Chair

Librarians and Seed Inventory (First of Series)

Dear Librarians,

We are all grateful for the work you do! No one in a seed library does more for the well-being of the library than you! In your hands rest the sacred seeds we share with one another,holding in trust for the generations that will follow on.

There has never been a consistent way to deal with how many seeds should be found in a packet. Initially, with SLOLA, librarians weighed the seeds at checkout. You can imagine what that scene was like! There were long waits to get your seeds, even with three or four librarians helping check out seed.

We tried measuring spoons for a very short time, but it never caught on with librarians. The general attitude seems to be more seeds is “more better and lets fill that envelope up!” But this process needs to be reconsidered as contradicts the reasoning for a seed library to exist in the first place.

We did not feel when we started out that members should expect to get ALL their seeds from SLOLA. Our library was not created to supply every seed to everyone. In fact, looking at the library from a viewpoint that emphasizes out-flow from the library, misses the entire point. I hate it when people say “Oh, it's free seeds!” It may be, but that's not the whole enchilada and starting with the “free seeds” thinking totally ignores why hundreds of hours have been volunteered to get these seeds to people.

Seeds from our library are meant to be returned.

We do have a few varieties of seeds we give out and do not want back (I..e. cabbage family plants that cross) but for the most part, we are providing seeds in order to build up an inventory of seeds grown in and adapted to our community. It is one of the reasons why SLOLA did not start with city libraries. We wanted actual gardeners to dispense and check in seeds – someone who was more or less familiar with the seeds and each of their limitations or strengths. We have proven, in the last 10 years, that our reasoning was faulty in that we get no more seed returned that the library seed libraries – and in fact, our insistent harping on the return of seed may have, in fact, backfired as people began to stay away in droves. However, in filling packets, we work with the idea that members get enough seeds to attend to their purpose leaving enough plants to return.

The seed packets we hand out are not meant to be full enough to compete with commercial packets. They are meant to have enough seeds for the member to grow and harvest for a family, providing sustenance and some seeds left over to produce seeds for the library.

In practice, checking out seeds for a large tomato, one might include 8 seeds per envelope, but for a cherry tomato, only six. Especially for those more vigorous vines of cherry tomatoes. You can get by with less tomato seeds in Altadena than you can on the coast because so many fall to powdery mildew on the coast and the dry heat in Altadena at minimum slows powder mildew.

In both cases, the member should have plenty of tomatoes to eat with enough left over to save seeds.

It is important, in the case of the larger tomato, to try to obtain seeds from more than one plant – if this means harvesting tomatoes from several plants and only taking seeds from a quarter of each tomato, this is preferable to having all the seeds from a single specimen plant. Diversity is a challenge when we have so few people actually returning seeds. The larger the gene pool for the seeds we save, the better!

Having used the example of the tomato, remember that each plant and each seed are unique and deserve their own attention. The more seeds you've grown and played with in your garden and the amount of hours you have spent in formal instruction on seed saving, the more grounded you will be – and I say that without the slightest bit of irony.

Each type of seed must be considered differently according to season (warm or cold), annual, biennial or perennial, method of pollination, likelihood of crossing, and level of difficulty in growing in our climate – taking all that into consideration for how many seeds are given per checkout. Every so often, someone brings in a bag of a million cilantro seeds – put them on the free table – most of us have stash of cilantro hidden under the bed and those who don't, soon will!

Return of the progeny of seeds checked out is one of our most important principles. We want to ask folks to make an effort to save seeds – but also give them the information on returning seeds. There is a balance to this that I'm afraid has not been mastered. From the beginning of SLOLA we held monthly meetings where members were admonished to bring back seeds from their plants and I am convinced that the constant drumming of that theme managed to scare enough people into leaving SLOLA rather than bring back inferior seed. There has to be a middle ground where people recognize they are not being given “free seeds” but are expected to bring back seeds as soon as they possibly can. There will always be a gang among our members who do not grasp what the organization is actually all about. I believe we are strong enough to proceed without their contributions or understanding. Still, we should try to reach them.

If there are comments and thoughts about this memo to Seed Librarians, please respond to me at I look forward to exploring this topic with you in greater detail and encourage ideas and commentary. This paper is posted – along with others at where I am keeping all the SLOLA Best Practices memos as they are written.

David King,
Best Practices