Directly across from the non-fiction aisle in remote Round Valley's small but modern public library sits an old-fashioned card catalogue representing a growing trend: seed lending.
"We're the first in Mendocino County," said Pat Sobrero, the Covelo library technician who initiated the seed-lending library in June.
Seed saving and lending is an old tradition that is enjoying a resurgence that's made its way into public libraries.
The first modern-day seed library in the United States is believed to be the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, or BASIL, established in about 1999 at the Berkeley Ecology Center.
Now there are at least 170 such libraries in more than 35 states, said Rebecca Newburn, co-founder of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, located in the Richmond Library since 2010. At least a dozen countries also are listed online as having seed lending libraries.
About two dozen are in Northern California with more to come. Seed libraries currently are being considered for Healdsburg and Ukiah, library officials confirmed. Both need volunteers, as in Covelo, to step forward to make the endeavor work.
They arise for a variety of reasons that include promoting biodiversity, local food and local independence and the desire to return seed sources to the public realm.
"By reclaiming the tradition of seed saving, we are taking seeds out of the hands of big corporations and putting them back into the hands of backyard gardeners" Sobrero said.
Not to be confused with seed banks, which are dedicated to preserving seeds, libraries freely share germplasm — tissue from which new plants can be grown, typically in the form of seeds — asking only that members collect and return seeds for others to use when they can.
A number of groups, such as Sebastopol-based West County Community Seed Exchange, periodically meet to share seeds but libraries like Covelo's make seeds readily available throughout the week.
"The average person can walk in off the street" and walk out with packets of seeds, Sobrero said.
She's hoping it will encourage more people to grow their own food.
"There are people who can't afford to spend $100 on seeds. I easily spend $200" a year on seeds, she said, noting each packet can cost between $2 and $5.
Because it's new, the library's seeds have been supplied through donations from seed-producing companies, including Covelo-based Sustainable Seed Company, which specializes in certified organic heirloom seeds.
With time, Sobrero expects the library will rely increasingly on seeds returned to the library by area residents like Emily Ellickson-Brown, one of about 20 seed library members so far.
"I'm going to try to contribute tomato seeds this year," said Ellickson-Brown, a teacher and public radio host who also works at a local restaurant and volunteers at the library.
Sobrero plans to collect and donate seeds from her garden's tomatoes, beans, lettuce, and corn.
Seeds from tomatoes, beans, peas and lettuce are some of the easier to save, Sobrero said.
"Tomatoes, you squeeze out the seeds, add a bit of water, let then ferment for 3 days or so, then wash and dry. Beans and peas you let dry on the plant, then collect them," she said.
Other vegetables are more prone to cross pollination and should not be harvested by beginners because the seeds may not produce the same variety from which they were harvested, she said.
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