Last March, when Ben Hagyard went to the Himmel Park Library, about a mile from his home, in Tucson, Arizona, he walked past the bank of computers and stopped at an old wood card catalog near the cookbooks. Flicking through drawers organized alphabetically, he pulled out six bar-coded packets that had labels like "Devil's Claw" and "Hopi Red" and proceeded to the checkout desk. Then he headed home, not to read but to plant what he had checked out: heirloom-variety amaranth, corn, and other seeds. He planned to grow them, harvest the seeds, and replenish the card-catalog stores so that others could repeat the cycle.
Of the roughly 17,000 public libraries across the country, about 350 are now "lending" seeds, up from just a handful 15 years ago. The aim is to make free seeds available in an effort to preserve disappearing heirloom and open-pollinated (OP) plant varieties, both edible and ornamental. An heirloom is, generally, any cultivar that existed before World War II, after which hybrids became commonplace and commercial farming began focusing on fewer varieties, ones cross-bred to tolerate shipping, drought, frost, and pesticides. OP plants, which include heirlooms that don't self-pollinate, are generally fertilized when wind, insects, or birds carry pollen from plant to plant. Unlike hybrids, OP and heirloom seeds produce next-generation plants that are very similar to the parents, a boon to gardeners who must buy hybrid seeds annually to get similar results from year to year.
Together, heirloom and OP plants represent unusual or rare varieties, some hundreds of years old and others indigenous to specific areas. Preserving plant biodiversity by saving OP seeds is important. An estimated 93 percent of the seed varieties available in the U.S. in 1903 are now extinct. Lost forever are unique flavors and plants adapted to a wide range of growing conditions, and with most of the world's food coming from a handful of plants, conserving what grows well locally is key to protecting our food supply. "There's a tremendously valuable reservoir of genetic information in heirloom and open-pollinated cultivars," says Irwin Goldman, chairman of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
But even more than tasty tomatoes or fragrant sweet peas, what is saved with heirloom seeds is regional and cultural history. "Seed saving and plant sharing are American traditions, practiced for hundreds of years," says Rebecca Newburn, of California's Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library. Preserving those traditions keeps the stories of these foods alive alongside the plants themselves, from the protein-rich tepary beans that were a staple for Native Americans in the Southwest to the Carolina African runner peanut, which started the South's peanut industry.
The way a seed library works is simple. Seed packets are generally stored in a cabinet or an old card catalog, where they're divided by category —edible, herb, and ornamental—and arranged alphabetically, often with a label indicating how difficult a plant is to grow. Some of the easiest seeds to grow and save come from beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes; flowers that produce large seeds; and ones that are easy to identify once the flower head dries, like marigold, morning glory, and zinnia. Borrowing is straightforward: Put a few seeds of a variety in an envelope (most libraries ask that you leave enough for the next person), and jot down the name and growing information. If a garden-smart librarian isn't on hand, there are usually books, handouts, and online videos available to help. "Choosing what to grow is like going to the candy store," says Janak Desai, who uses seeds from Connecticut's Fairfield Woods Branch Library to grow the area's renowned Southport onion, which was pickled and eaten to fight scurvy during the Civil War.
Though the hope is that borrowers will be able to return seeds from a successful harvest, it isn't required. "Our aim is to put seeds in people's hands," says Alida Given, director of Alabama's Magnolia Springs Library. "You will not be fined if you don't return seeds." A 40 percent return rate is considered a huge success.
To find a seed library near you, do a Web search of your state's public libraries or consult the map at richmondgrowsseeds.org. If there isn't one near you, consider starting one; the Richmond Grows website also offers a step-by-step guide. Seed libraries don't have to be in libraries; community centers, museums, schools, or any place open to the public can work. Another option is to buy seeds from companies that specialize in heirlooms, such as Victory Seeds or Sow True Seed, and share them with other gardeners. You could also join the Seed Savers Exchange; despite the name, the organization doesn't require you to save or exchange seeds to access its thousands of heirloom varieties.
"At first, I found the idea of seeds in a library pretty funny," says Ben Hagyard, of Tucson, who's been borrowing for three years. "But I've become interested in so many things because of it. I eat better. I pay more attention to the seasons and the environment, and I've met other gardeners. How cool is that?"