When Rebecca Newburn was volunteering at the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library in Berkeley, an organization that makes free seeds available to the public, she thought to herself, “I would like this for my community.”
Newburn has lived in Richmond for eight years, and her work as a science and math teacher in Marin County hasn’t taken her away from being a longtime gardener. “I love the idea of checking out seeds,” she said. Together with other community organizations and volunteers, Newburn helped found the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, which opened just two months ago and is located at the main public library. Together with Catalin Kaser, she serves as the library’s coordinator.
At the seed library, people can “check out” healthy seeds, use them to plant herbs, vegetables and flowers, and return new seeds from the resulting plants at the end of the season. The seed check-out process is self-service and it’s explained on the Richmond Grows website. Interested people can sign up for 45-minute orientations offered at the library several times a month and/or watch a 10-minute video that explains the process.
This seed library is one of several efforts that Richmond residents are making to grow food locally and build community, and Richmond’s seed exchange is the first one in the nation to operate at a traditional public library. “We put it in a public space because we wanted the entire public to have access,” Newburn said.
The seed library is a collaborative project of the Richmond Public Library and the Richmond Rivets, a nonprofit that promotes the local production of food, energy and goods. Newburn said that approximately 30 people had volunteered to make the library possible. “It’s a community effort,” she said.
Meant to be a model for other communities, the Richmond Grows Seed Library makes all its informational materials available to be downloaded for free from their website so other communities can start their own libraries of this kind.
Other community efforts to support more sustainable food and gardening are also growing in Richmond. Urban Tilth is a nonprofit that supports urban agriculture in West Contra Costa County. It is the sponsor of Richmond’s seed library, and also has a number of other projects including coordinating 10 small farms and providing technical assistance to seven community and school gardens across Richmond and San Pablo.
One of these gardens is around the corner from Deirdre Candelaria’s Richmond home, right up against I-80 at the intersection of Humboldt Street and Solano Avenue. Formerly a dirt lot that attracted garbage, Candelaria thought that it could be a great place for a community garden. Other neighbors were interested, too. Urban Tilth helped organize and plan the project and made donations of soil and plants. About 20 households participated in the making of what now is the Humboldt Edible Forest, a garden that has been growing for two years.
Tomatoes, chamomile, cabbage, mint and blackberries are some of the plants growing in the garden. People can take what they need; in exchange they are expected to take care of the garden by planting or watering. Candelaria said, “We take and take and take from the Earth and we haven’t learned how to give back.”
Candelaria said that the experience of sharing a community garden has been sweet. “There is this one mother who would come out with her son—they planted this special pumpkin that they came and watered every day,” she said.
Candelaria recently found out about the Richmond seed library on the Web and is looking forward to participating. “It’s great that people have access to the seeds for free,” she said.
As with the Humboldt Edible Forest, the concept of “giving back” is also very important at the seed library: When people take seeds, they are expected to bring seeds back. The seed library wants to create four videos to educate people on how to save seeds from their new plants so they can return them at the end of the season. They are starting a “kickstarter fundraising” campaign to get the videos done.
According to Newburn, seed saving was a tradition in the past, and she hopes that Richmond residents can now revive it. “The seeds have value as food, but also they are connected to our family and our community,” she said.