Saving seeds is slow, detail-intensive work; in fact, it’s downright tedious.
I know this. I save seeds for the seed library at the Ruiz Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. The seed library collects and shares flower, vegetable and herb seeds. Currently, the library boasts about 60 types.
This spring marks the library’s third gardening season. As a farmer at Switzer Neighborhood Farm, the community garden that sits next door and partners with the library, I’ve learned a lot.
Seed saving isn’t new. Like other back-to-roots movements, it preserves who we’ve been, reclaiming something lost as a result of advancement and automation.
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The first time, I found it peaceful and calming. We sat at a shaded picnic table, talking, breaking leaves and buds, finding seeds. I loved watching the brown, yellow and black seeds mix and reflect off the tin trays.
Cultivation is at the core of our being. But even without human intervention, seed saving happens.
Plants adapt for propagating. They save themselves. If left alone, plants will dry, rocks will break off excess material, and seeds will sprout come spring. When a plant goes to seed, it doesn’t think it’s dying; instead, it moves from a fruit-bearing to reproductive function.
Thankfully, seed libraries like this one don’t fall under seed law, which makes saving and sharing illegal. Those laws benefit the seed industry, though the original intent was to protect farmers from planting contaminated or diseased seeds. Rhetoric around this topic is aggressive and polarizing — like much of our political rhetoric — and few gardeners acknowledge the food security purposes of seed law.
But gardeners are right to push back. Saving seeds matters, and for more reasons than those we always hear about — protection from genetically modified organisms and preservation of native species.
Seed saving has forced me to pay attention. It requires gardeners to act as agents of natural selection. Just as collecting seeds is tedious, we watch and choose the healthiest plants, not wasting energy on a mediocre one. We return to our role as cultivators.
The library’s requirements add another layer, which ensures only good seeds are distributed.
Gardeners complete an intake form, including any relevant information, even plants grown nearby that could cause contamination or cross-pollination. The seeds are sorted, cleaned and treated. The overseer of the seed library, Amy Morris, grows test batches of each submission.
The Earth has its own sense of timing. While I wouldn’t do without our conveniences, they disconnect us from seasons, marking time and pace.
We buy spring and summer crops year round. We don’t slow down in the winter. Saving seeds partners with the seasons.
In fall or winter, the garden looks dead, but life happens underground, carrots and garlic, herbs and perennials. Whatever has survived winter will sprout, faintly at first. Seed saving fits perfectly with this — it accepts dormancy.
The plant dries and browns; it waits. We step in, cultivating. The cycle continues.
So far, many Kansas Citians agree that keeping this special collection is worth the tedium. Last year, the seed library had about 700 checkouts. In April, it was already close to 500. They’re called “checkouts” because like books, seeds should be checked back in.
There are corporate donations, but many of the seeds come from personal or community gardens — meaning the library literally grows and connects our community. You might be growing your neighbor’s plant.
So check out some seeds and return them when you can. Give something good back to your neighbor; that responsibility to your neighbor builds a true community.
Kara M. Bollinger works at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and writes nonfiction and poetry. She blogs about urban and community gardening at wateredlove.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.