The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, based in Richmond, California, is at the forefront of growing movement of seed libraries that has exploded across America in the last 3-4 years. The library was founded and is led by permaculturalist and science teacher Rebecca Newburn, an enthusiastic and energetic leader, who has helped to inspire a wave of seed libraries to open up across California and beyond.
The library is situated in a prominent position in the main reading room at Richmond Public Library. The large wooden cabinet is decorated with colourful notices, stickers and signs, catching the attention of casual passers-by and also explaining how to use the library. Richmond Grows is an ‘open system’ which means that visitors can come and take seeds or add seeds to the collection on their own whenever the library is open to the public. Rebecca & co. have tried to make it as easy and clear as possible for first-time visitors to know what to do, at the same time as ensuring the library is used correctly. There are instructions about how to sign up, how to choose which seeds to take, how to label them correctly and how to donate seeds back. All of the seeds are labelled according to how easy or difficult they are to save so that beginners know which ones to start with. All of the notices are a little overwhelming at first, however are necessary if the open system is to be self-maintaining in the long-term.
The seed lending library with its colourful array of signs, stickers and notices
Richmond Grows was one of the first seed libraries to open in the wave that has spread across America in recent years. As a result, founding member Rebecca Newburn has rather unwittingly found herself as a figurehead and spokesperson for the movement. Dozens of fledging seed projects are turning to Rebecca for advice. She has responded with characteristic energy and pragmatism by making all of the resources that she has used to establish her seed library available online – not only in English, but in Spanish and Mandarin as well. The resources form an invaluable set of guidelines to anyone starting a seed library and represent an amazing achievement by someone who is doing this all on a voluntary basis, out of a desire to act on her principles.
Rebecca has also been instrumental in connecting seed libraries across America and encouraging them to learn from each other and share resources. She organised the first Annual Seed Library Summit in 2010, a small and informal gathering of just a dozen people. The summit has grown each year since, and in 2015, there were over 50 people in attendance at the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. The gathered group included a range of people, from those who were running multi-branch seed libraries to those who had just heard about the idea and wanted to learn more. It was the largest summit meeting yet and demonstrates that interest in the seed library movement continues to grow.
www.richmondgrowsseeds.org – including ‘how to set up a seed library’ resource pack
www.seedlibraries.net – resources about how to start and maintain a seed collection, back copies of Rebecca’s Cool Beans! Seed Librarians’ Newsletter, and a list of libraries from around the world
Interview with Rebecca Newburn, founder of Richmond Grows
Why did you decide to set up the library?
I felt like seeds were really at the foundation of our food system and if we didn’t have that in place all of the other great work that people were doing really didn’t make a whole lot of difference. I also felt like it tied in with so many things that I care about – community, climate resilience and food security.
What do think your main successes have been so far?
In terms of Richmond Grows, I’m really excited with the fact that our ‘create a library’ model has supported so many communities in opening up. It’s great to be able to support your own community and I feel like it’s been really wonderful to see that that community is so large now that there’s over 500 seed libraries open around the world.
Do you know roughly how many seed packets your distribute each year?
It’s really hard to tell because we have an open system. We definitely get back hundreds of seed packets each year. We put in hundreds of packets and many of them are gone at the end of the year.
What proportion of the collection do you think is locally saved and how is this changing over the years?
Our intent is to get a lot of the super easy stuff like tomatoes, beans, peas, lettuce locally saved… In those drawers we’re probably at about 90% local. For things that are hard for us to grow in an urban setting, we’re now at the point where we’re collaborating with local farmers and creating a local network. In the East Bay we’re working with a group called East Bay Local Seeds, an organisation that I started. We’re working with farmers to get more local seeds that we can share through the libraries especially with crops that we have a hard time growing at the home scale.
How do you want the seed library to develop in the future?
I would like to see more local seed. I think the first thing is you just get started, you educate people about the concept, then you teach people about seed saving and then it’s getting people to return stuff. So obviously that’s all part of the process. I’m also very interested in how do we get people to commit to and be excited about stewarding particular varieties. I have some varieties that I feel very connected with so I’ve taken personal responsibility for maintaining those and I’m hoping that other people will be inspired by other seeds and to get that to be a community norm.
How would you rate the seed saving knowledge of your users? Have you seen that change since it started?
It’s variable! I’m excited that we’re definitely getting more and more people that are interested in seed saving. We offer classes several times a year. I’m thinking about how we can partner with different people in the community that either have the knowledge or could have that knowledge and start to disseminate that because there needs to be a lot more people learning it and teaching it.
What are your motivations for saving seed?
I feel like how can you be a gardener if you’re not saving seed? I feel like it’s such an essential piece and we’ve lost that connection with the whole cycle. People are like if something’s wilting, rip it out. Go buy something. No, gardens are not consumer places. They’re heart and soul and connection and we have been so disconnected for that full cycle. I felt this real need to be part of that again.
Do you have any seeds in the library which are rare or not generally available commercially?
Yes we do. We’ve started with lots of commercially donated seeds. We’ve got thousands of packets, many of which I’ve given to other seed libraries which are in the area, but now we’re starting to save seed we’re trying to focus on rare and unusual varieties. The concept that we can do food security through saving rare and unusual varieties is the direction that we’re taking.
Can you think of any seeds in particular that you’re proud to have in the collection?
Yeah of course! Well there’s one that we’re going to be putting out to the community in a large quantity in this upcoming year. The East Bay Local Seed group decided that we wanted to have one local seed that we were going to share and get 40 or 50 growers in this whole large region to grow this out. The one that we’re going to be sharing is Great Great Aunt Rosie’s Italian Pole Bean. The bean is from one of my neighbours who has been growing it on my block for about 25 years. It’s from his wife’s great great aunt and she has been growing it in the community for dozens and dozens of years. So that’s definitely something that we want to preserve because it’s adapted to our climate and it has a local story.