Boise seed 'library' catalogues diverse roots

12/6/2012 4:15 PM
By Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two Boise women aim to do their part for local botanical diversity in a grass-roots way.

Carrie Jones from Draggin' Wing Farm and Casey O'Leary from Earthly Delights Farm opened the Common Wealth Seed Library this month. Their project will be an active exchange, Jones said.

Members will be able to "check seeds out," take them home and grow them. The only requirement: setting aside part of what they grow for seeds to be returned to the library for others to share. The library won't be a place for long-term storage.

"We want to get seeds into peoples' hands as a way to preserve them," said Jones. "That tomato you grow that your great-great-grandmother grew in Italy? If you donate some seeds, there will be others growing that tomato and increasing them exponentially."

Only donations of heirloom and open-pollinated or non-hybrid seeds that reproduce true-to-form are welcome.

About 30 people have already joined the library as founding members and have begun donating.

"Some brought one kind of seed; some brought 20 varieties," Jones said.

Already the ranks include golden giant amaranth, purple orach (a.k.a. mountain spinach), tiger-eye dry beans and many others.

Jones hopes the collection will grow to include seeds that have gone through many rounds of trial and error, thanks to local gardeners, and are particularly suited to local soils.

Gardening has always been popular in the Treasure Valley. But members of the seed library have another cause, said Jones: Helping preserve seed diversity in an ever-consolidating market where companies often drop seed varieties that are less popular.

Some members are concerned about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, Jones said. They see seed-library participation as a way to control their food supply.

"One thing that's so great about the seed library, it's a way to address concerns that's fun and proactive, not fear-based," she said.

Boisean Suzanne Lewis had an organic farm — Mile Post 195 Farm between Buhl and Hagerman — in the late 1970s and early '80s. A founding member of the seed bank, she already has donated kernels of Hopi blue corn, which she has grown in Idaho for 30 years.

The corn has a special provenance. Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya, whose 1999 New York Times obituary described him as a "teller of Hopi prophecy to the world," gave the corn to Lewis and her partners.

He asked them to grow it in Idaho because of drought conditions in the Southwest. They did, and the blue corn thrived. Lewis was able to return seed corn to Banyacya's community, and she's now sharing it with Common Wealth Seed Library members.

"If the seeds live, we live," Lewis said.

She's been a member for many years of the Sunset Community Garden near Sunset and 38th Streets in Boise. Gardeners there grow produce for other neighborhood residents, including seniors at a nearby center and refugees. A near-fatal car accident some years ago gave her a sense of urgency about passing on her plant knowledge.

Growing blue corn is tricky, Lewis said. It cross-pollinates easily with other varieties, so it has to be grown in isolation from other corn crops to stay pure.

Educating growers about the fine art of seed-saving will be a big part of the seed library, Jones said.

"We've received seed donations we won't be able to use because people don't understand you can't just cut open a squash and have it reproduce," she said.

O'Leary will offer free seed-saving classes for members in January.

The seed library will be housed in a walk-in cooler at Draggin' Wing Farm on Hill Road. Most of the seed-trading with happen online, said Jones.

Seed-saving and seed-swapping aren't new to the Treasure Valley, nor to serious gardeners anywhere. But the enthusiasm for them may be growing.

The Idaho Botanical Garden hosted a seed swap in 2008, Five people showed up. In February of this year, the garden and the Treasure Valley Food Coalition co-hosted a local version of "Seedy Saturday" — a now-international term for community seed swaps. Between 200 and 300 people showed up on a cold, rainy day to share their treasures.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com


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