A revolution is gathering momentum, locally and across the globe. Its weapon is seeds, and the Seed Library of Los Angeles is doing its part to arm the citizenry.
As its name implies, the Seed Library of Los Angeles is a place where community members can check out seeds, as opposed to books. The hope is that eventually they will return with seeds harvested from their own gardens, thereby expanding SLOLA’s collection of local living seeds and the “seed revolution.” The Altadena branch, established in December, is part of a gradual expansion by SLOLA, which is headquartered at the Learning Garden on Venice High School’s campus in Venice. Plans are on track for a branch to open in Watts in March, and another is planned for Long Beach, thus fulfilling SLOLA’s mission to “facilitate the growth of open-pollinated seeds among residents of the Los Angeles Basin.”
“Hopefully, if the library is strong and people are returning seeds and we’re checking them out every year and we keep growing them out every season, then years down the line, we’ll have seeds that are better adapted to our microclimates up here in the foothills in the San Gabriel Mountains,” says Jessica Yarger, the Altadena branch coordinator. Yarger, who teaches gardening at Odyssey Charter School in Altadena and co-manages the school’s on-site garden, approached SLOLA chair Eleuterio Navarro with the idea of establishing an Altadena branch and tapped members of Altadena’s organic produce-exchanging RIPE community to help.
“We’re trying to create a depository that’s as diverse as possible,” Navarro explains. “We have two main sections in our library. One is cool crop seeds, things that tend to grow best in winter, like from August through March, which tend to be all your root crops, all your greens. Then we have over 350 varieties of crops just for our warm season, things that can grow in summer, late spring, early fall: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers. We’re constantly asking people, ‘If you have something you want to put in the library, bring it in.’”
The seed revolution has grown over the past decade, as news headlines and documentaries like Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” and Jeremy Seifert’s “GMO OMG” have roused public alarm over genetically modified produce, the extinction of many heirloom seed varieties, and efforts by litigious Big Ag companies to exert greater control over the food supply chain. Monsanto’s practice of seed patenting has been a particular source of heated controversy, reportedly becoming a contributing factor in at least some percentage of farmer bankruptcies and suicides here and abroad. Organic farming, meanwhile, has gradually expanded its market share; according to a 2017 report by the US Department of Agriculture, “consumer demand for organically produced goods continues to show double-digit growth.” (https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview) At the same time, citizens as well as regional seed companies have pushed back against the corporate monopolization of seed production.
Against that backdrop, the Seed Library of Los Angeles was founded in December 2010 by author and educator David King, who guided the nonprofit organization until last year, when Navarro was elected to his four-year term as chair. A computer network engineer by training, Navarro’s passion for gardening took root in childhood. He grew up on a farm in Jalisco, Mexico, until age 7, when his family relocated to the Westside. While Navarro attended Venice High School and Santa Monica College, his father worked as a landscaper for large properties in tony neighborhoods like Bel Air, where he grew organic produce in exchange for regularly leaving baskets with owners.
“He was doing CSA [community supported agriculture] veggie boxes 30, 40 years ago,” Navarro recalls. Seeing his father create a “community-like environment” set an example that now informs Navarro’s work with SLOLA as well as the USC Master Gardener program, which offers training in sustainable gardening practices.
That spirit of community building is at the heart of SLOLA meetings, according to Krystal Rains, a member since 2013 who spoke to Altadena branch members earlier this month about sowing and saving native seeds. Depending on the branch, she says, SLOLA meetings offer Q&A sessions, presentations, “free lessons in gardening and horticulture and botany.” And, of course, seeds.
SLOLA’s seed catalogue, built up by students and seed savers across LA County, lists numerous fruits and vegetables along with herbs, grains and sunflowers. Twenty-six strains of lettuce encompass familiar types like Brune d’Hiver and lesser-knowns such as Amish Deer Tongue and heirloom Butterhead Kagraner seeds. There are more than three dozen warm season and six cold season bean varieties, almost as many kinds of squash (not including nine kinds of pumpkin), and more than 90 varieties of tomato. Grain options include amaranth, barley, farro, oats, quinoa, rice, sesame, wheat and eight varieties of amaranth. Navarro says they’re getting ready to add at least 35 more crops to their database, and hope to amass more than 500 seed varieties.
“Our overall goal is to basically create a community of gardeners that will grow crops that are not commonplace — things that, unless we continue to grow them, will become extinct,” he says. “Open-pollinated heirloom variety seeds have been around for thousands of years. Human beings started cultivating plants about 10,000 years ago. We’ve mastered these crops over these last centuries. But over the last 50 years, things have changed, with the rise of agro-chemical companies and large corporations that want to patent seeds. How do you patent a seed? Over the years a lot of large seed companies purchased smaller seed companies and they don’t carry those seeds anymore so those crops started to go extinct, because seeds are alive. For example, a lettuce seed is only good for about a year or two. Things like squash have a 10-year life span, tomatoes maybe a little more.
“We want to ensure the diversity of crops. That way, one day if a blight or disease or fungus that affects our crops comes down the road, there’s enough diversity in our crop system that it will survive.”
SLOLA’s volunteer-run meetings vary in character from place to place. Rains, a veteran descended from farmers, describes a convivial social environment at the San Fernando Valley chapter. Woodland Hills meetings revolve around produce exchanges and roundtable discussions. Venice meetings host more speakers, ranging from local experts addressing climate change’s effects on local gardens and “how it will affect our food supply in the future,” Navarro says, to members sharing problem-solving tips. For instance, one apartment dweller talked about how she created sufficient root space to grow tomatoes by knotting old jeans, filling them with soil, and hanging the denim containers off her balcony.
Yarger says Altadena branch members’ interests range from the basics of backyard gardening to water issues like how to cap rain barrels. She coordinates with Altadena Public Library in reaching out to speakers and educators. Thanks to the library’s active community, she says, SLOLA meetings have “drawn some people that might not be into gardening yet but their interest is piqued. Altadena already has a very strong and rich gardening community, and it’s amazing to be able to pull new people in and grow that.”
“Twenty, 30 years down the line when I’m gone, we want to make sure that the act of seed saving, the act of educating people about where food comes from and the connection between food and the culture, is there,” Navarro says, mindful that expanding SLOLA helps re-energize the membership. “Every branch is slowly taking on their own identity.”
A version of this story appeared in The Argonant, a sister publication of the Pasadena Weekly. The Altadena branch of the Seed Library of LA meets on the first Saturday of each month; the next meeting takes place from 10 a.m. to noon April 7 at the Altadena Public Library’s Community Room, 600 E. Mariposa St., Altadena. The meeting will feature a talk on raising chickens by Su Falcon, author of “How I Survived My First Year with Chickens.” One needs not be a member to attend. If you would like to join, lifetime membership is $10. For more information, call (626) 798-0833 or visit altadenalibrary.org.