Written by Rachel Klucewicz, based on an interview with Rebecca Newburn of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library

In May of 2010, spearheaded by Rebecca Newburn, the Richmond Rivets Transition Initiative opened the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library.  Located inside of the Richmond Public Library in Richmond, California, the seed library consists of three self-serve cabinets filled with close to 100% locally grown seeds, free to anyone who needs them for their home garden.  Community members are encouraged to save some seeds at the end of the growing season and offer them back to the library for others.

Newburn saw this project as an opportunity to cultivate connection, biodiversity, food security, and climate-adapted seeds within her community and the world at large.  In the long list of important needs to address on our rapidly changing planet, as Newburn says of the seed library: “It checks off a lot of boxes.”  The group offers a variety of classes on gardening and seed-saving as well as information on how to start a seed library.  Richmond Grows was the seventh seed library in the world and has served as a vibrant, replicable model for many other libraries.  Since their inception, the number of worldwide seed libraries has grown to 700.

Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth at one of Richmond Grow’s free seed libraries on the Richmond Greenway

During the pandemic, with public spaces such as the Richmond Library closing, Richmond Grows was forced to re-envision the seed library and open seed pickup locations in 12 different community spaces including community markets, community centers, the Richmond Latino Center, a worker-owned bike shop, and several urban farms.  They simplified their number of seed offerings to minimize contact.  Demand for seeds was so high that the group did a commercial purchase of seeds to replenish their stocks for the first time in years.  The process of pivoting during the pandemic broadened their reach into different parts of the community, bringing seeds and knowledge further into the commons.  Moving their classes online also increased their reach, and allowed them to offer a greater variety of classes such as “Seed Saving in a Time of Crisis.”

The positive impact the Richmond Grows Seed Library continues to create within its community is manifold.  In addition to providing locally grown seeds and knowledge of gardening and seed saving practices, the library builds community through the act of sharing and storytelling.  Newburn says, “You become a seed saver and you just automatically want to share because you have so much.”  With the seeds come stories, recipes and connections.  Newburn shared a memory of receiving Nepalese pepper seeds from a friend which she then grew and reshared with Nepalese friends in her community, allowing them to enjoy a culturally familiar taste of home and continue the cultivation of such seeds.

Najari Smith at one of Richmond Grow’s free seed libraries at Rich City Rides

Newburn reflects that, overall, the project ran smoothly from its inception, quickly gaining a lot of traction, energy and support.  Though the group doesn’t have a lot of money to work with, that hasn’t been a barrier to success.  “We always think of ourselves as a low-budget, high-impact organization,” Newburn says.  Being the 7th seed library in the world, they had the advantage of easily securing their initial donation of commercial seeds.  With hundreds of seed libraries popping up worldwide, that initial donation to get started can be more difficult to come by now and is an important consideration for groups setting out to start their own seed library.

Newburn encourages groups seeking to start a seed library to get creative in figuring out who they can partner with for securing the initial seed donation.  She suggests reaching out to local farmers, urban agriculture groups, permaculture guilds and university horticulture departments–anyone who grows food on a larger scale and could potentially dedicate a plot to saving and donating seeds.

Richmond Grows free seed library at the Richmond Latino Center

Newburn also advises aspiring groups to have a reasonable plan, and remember that not everything needs to happen in the first year.  Richmond Grows started simply: offering seeds and one class in their first year, expanding class offerings the second year, and focusing on engaging more seed-savers the third year.  It takes time to find and build relationships with the people who are interested in or already saving seeds and to get people educated and engaged in the process of seed saving.  Once a group takes the time to build relationships and educate people, it only takes a handful of seed-savers in a community to fill an entire library.

Newburn encourages aspiring seed-savers to contemplate their particular areas of interest and explore that question within their communities.  By understanding what really inspires different people, groups can sustain volunteer interest and potentially develop unique seed collections, such as local natives, butterfly plants, medicinals, or natural dye plants.  Some seed libraries take the approach of focusing on one genre of seed-saving.  Two passionate volunteers built an impressive collection of California native seeds for the Richmond Grows Seed Library.  When setting out to start a seed library, it’s important to explore the inspiration and interest within each unique community.

For more information on Richmond Grows Seed Library and for information on starting a seed library in your community visit:

www.richmondgrowsseeds.org

www.seedlibraries.net