Nothing is a better motivator for starting to plan for a new spring garden on a cold winter day than browsing through the new seed catalog. Inspiring seed names like “beaujolais” spinach, “purple dragon” carrots, and “empress” green beans, to name a few, conjure up visions of a magical garden kingdom. Delectable choices abound in heirlooms inherited from past farmers and newly developed varieties. It is fun to choose seeds like a kid in a candy store. There are even greater reasons, though, for keeping a wide diversity of plant varieties in circulation with implications far beyond my vegetable garden.
Many biologists say that maintaining biodiversity is essential for the health of the planet. Heightened concerns over food security and rampant species loss have activated seed exchange networks. Experienced farmers and avid novice gardeners share their favorite varieties at seed libraries and seed swaps, keeping obscure but loved plant varieties alive. My Seattle neighborhood is no exception, in fact, there are several seed libraries around the city.
The Importance of Biodiversity
Variety not only makes for an interesting harvest, it also is the basis for a resilient garden. Some varieties of tomatoes, for example, will have better success in warm humid climates, and others can tolerate a cooler climate; some will survive diseases better than others. The variety that is most adapted to the conditions it encounters is the most productive. On the micro-scale of my garden, planting more than one variety is food security for fresh tomatoes. On the larger scale of agricultural crop production, a diversity of crops contributes to global food security. It ensures that there is a large gene pool from which to breed varieties particularly adapted to climate, pests and diseases, and that provide the best nutritional value. Farmers that tap into this biodiversity develop vegetable varieties that change and improve year to year.
In some areas of the world, crop diversity is thriving. Farmers in the Andes mountains of Peru, for example, have grown potatoes for generations. Many varieties of potatoes, in fact, hundreds of them. The nutrient dense potatoes have vital to the well being of the Peruvian diet. Some varieties are resistant to certain diseases, others are able to survive severe frosts, others are just fascinatingly unique in their color and shape. The diversity holds promise for use in cross breeding to develop potatoes for in other parts of the world.
Seed banks around the world are preserving plant diversity for future generations. There are over 1,700 gene banks in over 100 countries that have over 7 million seed samples. The seeds are so valuable that many seed banks keep back up collections of their seeds in seed vaults. At the Svalbard Global Seed Vault located in Norway and the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, seeds are kept at minus 18 degrees celsius in buildings that can withstand natural disaster. The Svalbard and USDA vaults hold seed varieties of everyday food producing plants, including wheat, rice, barley and many vegetables, and their wild relatives. Their varieties include historical seed like cotton seeds that are almost 100 years old and wild ancestors of corn, as well as newly developed seeds. The vaults are like a safe deposit box collection, where seeds are stored for safe keeping, and their owners maintain control of the deposit and can withdraw at any time.
One of the depositors to the seed vaults is Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. They have their own seed bank in Iowa with over 20,000 plant varieties, and send backup collections to Svalbard and Fort Collins for safekeeping. In order to keep their seed stores viable, they grow out a selection of their stored varieties each year to harvest a fresh collection of seeds. Replenished seed stores include black oats that were brought to the US by a farmer from Norway in the early 1900’s and a Utah celery that was grown by Japanese immigrants in the 1940’s.
Seed exchange for local biodiversity
Keeping seeds safe in vaults is valuable for preserving plant varieties that have unique qualities. But if they are locked away in a vault and never used, the knowledge is locked away as well. For seeds to reach their full potential, they should be out in circulation so that the knowledge of their unique properties and how to best cultivate them is part of gardening and farming culture. Not all stored heirloom seeds may be considered optimal, but their hidden traits could be useful in breeding a new generation, as citizen scientists are discovering when they grow obscure heirloom seeds and document their results.
Just as the value of the Peruvian potatoes is not just in the potato itself, but in the culture that has passed on knowledge and kept their cultivation alive for generations, it is the knowledge about qualities and cultivation of heirloom plants of every region that is the key to maintaining biodiversity.
On a local level, communities around the world are creating their own seed libraries. The libraries ensure that seed sharing remains a legal right in the face of seed privatization. In India, the organization Navdanya promotes seed sovereignty and food sovereignty through numerous community seed banks throughout the country. It is featured in the successful film SEED: The Untold Story, where Dr. Vandana Shiva promotes seed saving as an act of civil disobedience for seed freedom.
Some communities have made seed libraries a part of their community book libraries, keeping the seeds organized in old card catalog cabinets or prominently displaying the seeds. The idea is for people to check out a few seeds, and at the end of the season they can collect seeds from their harvest to return. This comes with its own challenges since there is no guarantee that participants will protect the plants from contaminating fertilization or that they will save and label the seeds correctly. Some libraries provide seed in packages from seed companies so you can be assured of their origin.
Sharing seeds in Seattle
The seed sharing community of Seattle is spread throughout several neighborhoods so that it is convenient to visit a nearby seed library or seed swap. Libraries are hosted by a number of organizations, and vary in content. I visited nearby seed libraries sharing space with tool libraries. (Tool libraries have an assortment of woodworking and other tools to borrow or use in their workshop). The collections range from seeds that have been personally harvested and donated from someone’s garden to packets of seeds that look like they were donated from a retail stock of the previous year. In one library, jars of scantily labelled seeds were stored in what looked like an alchemist’s cabinet, and at another they were in a well organized set of pull out drawers with seeds sorted and categorized.
Seed swaps that are organized by King County Seed have an even greater selection at their spring events. Eager seed collectors crowd around tables covered with an array of seed packets and even donate some of their own seeds. It’s a sort of treasure hunt, rewarded by unexpected discoveries. When I visited, there was a great assortment of organic, heirloom and local seed company packets, mostly just a year or two old, and some seeds that were saved by home gardeners. People were encouraged to take just a few seeds from their selected variety and leave the rest for others. I found a few plant varieties to try this year, including the Minnesota Midget Melon.
Could the Seattle seed sharing community develop into something more? The seed swaps are kind of a free for all, and you use seeds from someone’s hand labelled jar at your own risk. More organized swaps online, like Seed Savers Exchange, are an example of the possibilities, but maybe it is just fun to take a chance with the free seeds at my neighborhood seed exchange.
The Seattle seed swaps bring together local gardeners. The Seed Savers Exchange brings together a network of gardeners across the country. Whether you participate in community seed exchanges and save your own seeds or purchase seeds from a local seed company, by using open pollinated non-GMO seeds, you are supporting a traditional method of gardening that keeps genetic seed material in the sphere of public ownership. Search out the companies in your area that are stewards of seeds. One of my favorites in Washington is Uprising Seeds. Their website states their committal to strengthening the public commons of seed genetics by preserving and improving varieties for greater biodiversity.
Maintaining diverse agriculture is challenging. According to Dian Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, “We can only preserve heirloom seeds through active stewardship. If we don’t use them, if we don’t allow them to grow again, they become lost.” We can be a part of the seed saving movement not only by saving our own seeds, but also by purchasing the rare and resilient seeds that are preserved by local seed companies. Cultivating and harvesting wonderful vegetables right in your own garden is a way to enjoy this treasure that is part of a sustainable planet.