Words by Craig Idlebrook / Photographs by Michael Piazza
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero
There are earthy secrets tucked away in a basement cabinet of the Fowler Branch of the Concord Free Public Library. Librarian Enid Hart Boasberg motions to the stately cabinet as she walks down a curving staircase. The only hint of the contents within is the gardening books propped invitingly on top.
For library patrons of a certain age, the cabinet doesn’t look out of place, but the library actually had to procure it from a local genealogical society. “We were hoping for a card catalogue, but we couldn’t find one,” Boasberg says.
Each drawer houses neat packets of vegetable and herb seeds you wouldn’t find in your average gardening center, including a tomato variety called Snow Fairy, a squash variety dubbed Fordhork, and a bean variety called Hutterite. They are part of the newest collection at the Concord library, an heirloom seed repository where patrons can check out seeds in the spring if they promise to return fresh seeds in the fall from the plants grown.
Boasberg is one of dozens of librarians across the country who have crossed their love of gardening with their love of books. The goal of these ventures is to diversify and strengthen seed stock genetics and make gardening more accessible. To Concord residents who organized this project, a seed lending library fits right in with the philosophy of the town’s most famous gardener, Henry David Thoreau, who preached the gospel of self-reliance and who most likely would have balked at buying seed packets at $2 a pop.
Boasberg spearheaded the seed library concept after reading in a gardening magazine about a similar library/gardening partnership at the Richmond Public Library in California. An avid gardener, she says she saw the possibilities for such a cooperative seed share taking root in Concord, which bursts with gardeners, many of whom come into the library and share their groundhog war stories. Seed lending is as old as gardening, and the tradition is already alive and strong in Concord, she says.
“Everybody’s very sharing. We all share with each other,” Boasberg says.
A seed lending library fits with the library’s mission to encourage the health of the commons, and it’s a public place with long hours where patrons can access the seeds, she says. She and fellow librarian Kitty Smith did the lion’s share of the organizing, soliciting starter money from the Friends of the Concord Library and sizable seed donations from the Baker Creek and High-Mowing seed companies. Now their office is just as likely to have large seed packets to break down as new books to catalogue.
A librarian’s natural perchance to organize might be another reason why seed lending libraries are finding permanent homes among book stacks. At Fowler, the two librarians have designed ways to organize the collection to avoid a seed free-for-all among over-exuberant gardeners. They’ve created a searchable database and divided the seeds into “super-easy”, “easy” and “difficult”, based on the level of difficulty of saving the seeds in a way that a variety can remain genetically intact. And, most importantly, they have made sure the seeds are in neat and easy packets.
“I have nightmares of seed all over the floor,” Boasberg says.
Creating a seed lending library is about more than saving a few dollars at the gardening store, says Deborah Bier, a holistic medical practitioner and head gardener for the kitchen garden at Thoreau Farm; Bier has helped coordinate cooperation between the farm and the library. Seed saving is a vital skill that, until recently, had been passed down from generation to generation, and it served to strengthen regional seed stock diversity, she says.
“The interruption of the millennial-long version of seed-saving is just unnatural and has not turned out the way we had hoped,” Bier says.
Most farmers and gardeners saved seeds and many cultivated their own unique varieties until post-WWII. Town gossip often revolved around the mysteriously shared characteristics of seed varieties between rival farms, and farmers guarded their prized varieties as if they were military secrets. Cloak and dagger seed espionage has led to some great gardening stories, Bier says. In nearby Ipswich, for example, a farmer named Nathaniel Newman Stowell grew some of the best corn around, but he wouldn’t sell his seed to anyone. Sometime in the 1840s, legend says, Stowell gave a few ears of corn to a friend to grow for personal use, but he made the friend promise not to share it with anyone else. Instead, Stowell’s friend sold it to a seed company for somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000, and Stowell’s Evergreen has been a popular heirloom variety for the last 150 years.
Since WWII, seed companies have focused increasingly on developing and marketing high-yield hybrid seed varieties that can’t be saved. Horticulture programs at land-grant universities, once the bastions of regional seed breeding, lost much of their public research funding and focused their research instead on breeding proprietary seed varieties for companies. This shift in the seed marketplace has been credited for boosting agricultural yields and feeding a hungry and growing planet, but the progress has come at the cost of genetic diversity and farming autonomy, says Kristina Hubbard, communications director of the Organic Seed Alliance. Now, two firms control patents on more than half the U.S. corn and soybean stock, she says.
“It’s important to remember that U.S. agriculture was built on a foundation of seed that was held, managed, and improved in the public domain,” Hubbard says in an email interview.
Bigger seed companies target their breeding programs to fit the needs of farmers in the Corn Belt, California, and the Pacific Northwest, which has led to the development of seed stock that isn’t well-suited for New England’s climate. Every generation, a plant adapts to the climate where its grown; Massachusetts farmers and gardeners must find ways to breed seed stock that can handle the state’s variable weather, especially in the age of climate change, says Bier. “The weirdness of the weather is becoming planet-wide, but our weirdness is a different kind of weirdness,” says Bier.
Heirloom seeds that have not already been patented by large seed companies are more likely to have been bred to succeed in specific regions. At Thoreau Farm, Bier is growing and strengthening older heirloom varieties that would have been available for Henry David Thoreau to plant in the 19th century. She’s combining heirloom seed stock, including some varieties that predate the arrival of Columbus, with modern principles of seed selection and intensive gardening. The seeds that survive, bred to adapt to today’s climate, will be part of what’s available at the library.
“We’re actually growing plants that will be more productive right here,” Bier says.
Reversing Seed Consolidation
Interest in coupling seed lending libraries with traditional libraries has taken root across America, says Rebecca Newburn, co-founder of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in California. The Richmond Public Library, one of the first book-and-seed lending programs in the country, received so many calls from other libraries since they opened in 2010 that they have set up a how-to website, she says. Since the seed library opened its drawers in 2010, Newburn has been contacted by roughly 150 like-minded organizations looking for more information; some 60 have started their own seed-lending libraries within libraries, she says.
“It’s been a real sweet unfolding of this project,” Newburn says. “If we can start to take care of our seed, this genetic bottleneck we’re in will start to widen a little bit.”
Concord looks like fertile ground for this concept to take root, says Harry Bartlett, executive director of Concord Conserves, an organization that tracks the community’s many efforts at sustainability. Concord has gained notoriety for being the first community to ban single-serving plastic water bottles and the town has the most hybrid cars per capita in the state, Bartlett says. And ever since the Transcendentalists started stirring the dirt near Walden Pond, Concord has attracted civic-minded gardeners. The town has three community gardens and even the prison manufactures compost for local gardeners.
“People have moved here in part because of the whole legacy of Thoreau and Emerson,” Bartlett says.
The Concord Library is hoping to deepen the community’s knowledge of heirloom gardening and seed-saving with the lending library. It’s coordinating seed-saving classes and phasing in the seed-saving component of the lending library until gardeners have a chance to learn more about how to avoid accidental cross-breeding. It’s an organized effort to ensure that the seeds that come back are genetically stronger and purer than those that left, says Bier. Plant breeding is a brutal business of culling to ensure genetic strength, and Bier constantly feeds donated pumpkin or squash seeds of questionable lineage to the chickens at Thoreau Farm. That being said, gardeners shouldn’t be intimidated to check out seeds, Bier says.
“We don’t charge overdue fines if you have a crop failure,” she chuckles.
Though only in its first year, the Concord seed lending library already has been fielding calls and emails from other organizations that want to set up similar operations. That’s just what Boasberg hoped would happen.
“We’ve decided that instead of viral, it’s fungal; we’re hoping the idea goes fungal,” she says.
Seed Library Blooms in Hardwick
In 2012, Roberta McQuaid, a gardening writer and a horticulturalist, received an advance copy of a book on seeds to review at her home in Hardwick. What she read in The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save the Planet left her dumbfounded about the state of our seed stock. The book’s author, Janisse Ray, detailed how seed varieties were disappearing and seed companies were consolidating at a frightening pace. In one study, two University of Georgia researchers found that some 94% of seed varieties listed in a 1903 U.S. Department of Agriculture catalogue had disappeared, representing a 94% loss of the growing stock.
“This book just really floored me about what’s going on with our food supply,” says McQuaid.
But the book also inspired her with stories of individuals who took it upon themselves to open their gardens to threatened species as if their patches of dirt were proverbial arks. McQuaid decided to start a seed library in Hardwick based on the seed-lending program found at the public library in Richmond, California. Hardwick’s seed library opened for lending this spring at the Paige Memorial Library. The library became the first in the state to begin offering seed to patrons.
The seed display has a prominent place in the small library, with seeds to offer in small packets, along with information on growing. Patrons can “check out” the seeds by writing their names on slips of paper in an old card catalogue, their signatures serving as pledges to do their best to return the seed’s faithful offspring the next year. Early in the 2013 growing season, all the green bean and spinach packets had been checked out like bestsellers, while more intimidating varieties have moved off the shelves like Tolstoy texts. McQuaid hopes to encourage gardeners to grow the tougher varieties with education.
“If people don’t know it, they don’t really want to grow it,” McQuaid says.
Library director Paula Hurd has been impressed with McQuaid’s efforts to create the lending library. She says McQuaid has been the driving force behind the seed library, and that she was able to use her connections to shelve it mostly with donated seed. Community interest was stronger than expected.
“It has taken off,” she says. “We were really surprised.”
Even though Hardwick is an agricultural community, Hurd says there’s a need to keep gardening traditions alive. By making the seed library a centerpiece in the public library, it informs patrons that gardening is easy and can be done in as small or as large a scale as would suit their needs, she says.
Hurd is especially encouraged by the number of young mothers who stream in to finger seed packets while their children play at the nearby baseball field. It reminds her of her own household, where her teenage daughter is the master gardener of the family, and it gives her hope for gardening’s future.
“We really want to start our kids on this,” Hurd says.
Craig Idlebrook is a freelance reporter and editor who has written for more than 30 publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, Mother Earth News, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He lives in Newton with his wife and daughter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.