Saturday, November 17, 2018

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

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