With hundreds of tiny white petals clustered atop long green stems, the flowers of D Carota Sativus, the common domesticated carrot, look nearly identical to Queen Anne's Lace, the white blooms of the carrot's wild cousin, Daucus Carota. Because carrots are biennials, meaning they bloom only every other year, few home gardeners are likely to know what the the plant looks like when left to flower unless the tuber was left in the ground with the intention of saving its seeds at the end two full growing seasons. This is precisely what the founders of Santa Fe's newly launched public seed library hope to encourage.
The art of seed-saving, once a common and necessary practice among subsistence farmers and backyard veggie-patchers, was nearly forgotten in the wake of industrial agriculture's genetically modified seeds designed to last no more than a single season and the convenience of seed packets sold in grocery stores and nurseries to small-scale farmers and at-home gardeners. SFR previously reported that researchers estimate 75% of the world's seed diversity in food crops has been lost in less than a century—a worrisome fact considering scientists have also shown regionally adapted crop varieties and heirloom seeds to be far more resilient to unpredictable weather patterns than their mass-produced counterparts.
Yet as communities become aware of the importance of preserving and expanding the genetic diversity within our regional food systems, the rise in popularity of seed libraries across the country and organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance signal the resurgence of the age-old practice of saving seed. The new seed library at the Santa Fe Public Library's Southside Branch is one of them.
"It makes a lot of sense for seed exchanges to be happening at public libraries," says Brita Sauer, the library services director at the Santa Fe Public Library Main Branch, who started the Santa Fe seed library in collaboration with the Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners, a volunteer-run organization that educates the public about gardening. "Libraries have always been the place where sharing of knowledge happens. As a cultural resource, seeds have as much cultural and biological information as a book."
Sauer started a seed library in Albuquerque five years ago and announced the intention to start one here soon after she moved to Santa Fe. The timing was perfect, says Christine Salem, a member of the SFEMG's Seed Stewards project. "We were just considering how to start a seed library in Santa Fe ourselves. We were so excited to partner with the public library and provide the educational component to the project."
On a shelf to the left of the library entrance, the seeds are held in boxes of brown paper envelopes, each carefully labeled. A library card isn't required to check out seed packets, but borrowers are asked to log the seeds, take no more than five packets per person and save the seeds from some of the plants they grow to return to the library's collection. Eventually, says Sauer, "the hope is to create a collection that is made up of seeds adapted to this area."
Packets are marked with the level of difficulty in saving seed from plants grown at home. A green star indicates plants that are self-pollinating and easy for beginners, yellow stars include biennials, such as carrots and insect-pollinated plants that must be grown with care so that they do not cross-pollinate. Red stars mark pants that are wind-pollinated and require advanced seed-saving methods. Members of the SFEMG are at the Southside Library Branch from 1-4 pm on Saturday afternoons to answer questions and give further planting advice.
Sauer and Salem recommend that participants keep detailed journals if they plan to return seeds so that staff can vet the quality and likelihood of cross-pollination. The library only accepts donations of seed grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers and does not accept hybrids or GMO varieties.
So far, the seed library has distributed nearly 500 packets in the few months since it started.
Sauer tells SFR she hopes the seed library will help combat future food insecurity and food deserts that could become a more pressing issue as the Southside continues to expand.
Salem says that the seed library also supports local traditions. "There's a real cultural aspect to saving seed in New Mexico. There are seed stories that go along with the practice," says Salem. "Maybe the story includes how that seed expressed itself, where it came from; maybe this seed is one that has been grown by your family for generations. Maybe the story includes words from an Indigenous language. It's about awareness of food systems and seed sovereignty, but also literally about going back to our roots and remembering how we got to where we are."
The Southside library hosts a plant swap this weekend, where participants are welcome to bring and trade extra starts from their gardens and house plant clippings. Future events include a drip irrigation class on June 5 and seed-saving workshops towards the end of the growing season; find out more at the "events" section at santafelibrary.org.
10:30 am-noon Saturday May 25. Free.
Santa Fe Public Library Southside Branch,
6599 Jaguar Drive, 955-2820.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Brita Sauer's last name.