Tucson’s seed library fosters food sovereignty in a desert

With help from Pima County’s public libraries, Tucsonans grow urban gardens.


In front of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library in Tucson, patrons can claim round concrete landscaping beds for free and create their own gardens with seeds from the library’s seed collection. Some of the three-foot-wide planters are festooned with exuberant jungles of squash, flowers and trellised bean plants, while others look more Zen garden than vegetable garden.

In addition to books and DVDs, in 2012 the Pima Country Public Library system became one of the first in the nation to circulate seeds. Aspiring gardeners can look up varieties electronically, put seeds on reserve and check out 10 packs at a time. Availability changes with the seasons: By mid-September, tomato seeds are long gone, but many other seeds — including dill, arugula, cucumbers, the flat white teardrop shapes of squash seeds, and the small dry beads of tepary beans — rattle in paper envelopes. Participating branches offer support as well as seeds, such as gardening classes, brochures, and, of course, books. The greenest beds flourish with flowers, herbs, vegetables and an idea: That public libraries can be resources for local food growers as well as local readers.

The Seed Library is a free service where patrons can check out seeds just like they would check out a book. When they have harvested the fruit or vegetable, they can return their new seeds to the library.
Courtesy Pima County Public Library

Now, five years in, Pima County librarians hope more growers will start bringing back seeds from the plants they grew, making the collection stronger and better adapted to local conditions over time. “Only maybe 40 percent of the donations we get are from local growers,” says librarian Betsy Langley, who helps manage the seed program. “We want to increase that and have a larger proportion of our circulating seeds be from local gardeners, because one of our goals is to have healthy seed stock and plants that are acclimated to Tucson.” Although there’s no requirement to return seeds, Langley says, “there are definitely some people who are just amazing and donate a lot back.” Seed patrons write their first names on return packets destined for repurposed card catalogs, along with information about the crop that’s useful to the library and future gardeners.

Langley explains that when the seed library began, only a handful existed around the country, generally run by gardening clubs or other community organizations. Pima County’s was one of the first to be run by a public library system. “We are trying to make sure everyone has the same access,” she says. The idea for a seed library came from sellers at a local farmers’ market; librarians quickly realized they already had the infrastructure in place. What’s more, Tucson is home to Native Seeds/SEARCH, a globally known regional seed saving organization that specializes in conserving and sharing desert-adapted landraces.

Ethnobiologist and author Gary Nabhan cofounded Native Seeds/SEARCH in the early 1980s, when he and a research partner were told by members of local tribes that traditional food crops were in danger of disappearing — and that tribal members’ health could benefit from their return. Today, Native Seeds/SEARCH safeguards some 1,900 accessions of domesticated crops and wild relatives, related to the agricultural practices of more than 50 indigenous groups, as well as Hispanic communities and Anglo settlers. Tribal communities in the region have free access to seeds. Native Seeds/SEARCH also teaches workshops where students learn to use, save and share local food plants.

Native Seeds/SEARCH helped the seed libraries get started through training and seed donations. Nabhan shares Langley’s interest in making gardening more accessible to all. “Sometimes the heirloom vegetable movement gets rarified, that it’s only for the gourmet,” Nabhan says. “But it’s really an indigenous and immigrant movement. It’s in the households of the poor who can’t afford high water bills, whose kids need diverse nutrition.”

One library patron who enthusiastically returns seeds is a man whom I’ll call Mark. Mark has declined to give his name because he’s a self-identified “guerilla gardener:” one who, under cover of anonymity and secrecy, attacks his city’s rundown corners with greenery. In Tucson’s overlooked places — an empty wash, dusty highway verge, cracked parking lot — Mark plants things. What’s more, Mark scavenges plants and plant parts: seeds dropped by flowers on a lawn here, transplants gleaned from succulents or cacti on city property there. Though the results are lovely, all of this is of questionable legality. But Mark can’t seem to help himself. When the highway department created a drainage area between two roads a couple of miles south, Mark planted it with vegetables. Most of it got eaten by wildlife, but he didn’t mind. “There are so many javelina there, deer, rabbits,” he says, grinning. He’s waged a relentless battle with the gas station across the street from where he lives. He plants date palms at the edge of their parking lot; they remove them. They finally missed one, and now it’s shoulder high — and too thorny to mess with. “It won’t have dates in my lifetime, but someday,” Mark says.

One hot Sunday this September, after selecting seeds from the library’s repurposed card catalog, Mark shows off his planter near the front entrance. He’s slender, dressed in jeans, a faded black tee shirt, and a sweatband under a baseball cap, with deep crowsfeet lining his face. Despite the searing desert heat, his garden grows a multilayered thicket. Nasturtiums sprout at the bottom, squash climb metal trellises, and above that a stout chili pepper tree shelters everything, with countless other plants winding in-between. The topsoil Mark added to this planter, he gathered from a city landscaping project down the block. Hiding in his veggies are purloined pieces of cacti and succulents of dubious origin, so healthy they seem to be glowing in his borrowed soil.

When Mark sees library planters that other gardeners have abandoned, that guerrilla gardening instinct kicks in: He fosters them, planting library seeds. “If they come back, I’ll say, ‘I planted it for you,’ ” Mark says, shrugging. He points across the street to the sandwich shop, which has planters next to the sidewalk. “Imagine if that had watermelon instead of flowers,” he says. “People who were hungry could just walk by and pick fruit.” That’s no small dream; in the summer, Pima County’s main library shelters many homeless people from heat that regularly climbs above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One man tells me he wanted to buy a banana at a nearby bagel shop but demurred because of the price: $1.75.

Mark began urban growing after a long battle with severe chronic depression and homelessness. He lived on his mother’s farm in the Philippines before moving to Seattle some 50 years ago. After an acrimonious divorce, Mark found himself depressed, homeless and broke. A counselor suggested trying a sunnier location, so he rode the Greyhound to Tucson two decades ago. Eventually, he found himself able to start working again. “You have to have the passion for it,” Mark says, pointing to one planter with a shock of greenery several feet high. “I taught that girl about gardening, and look at her plants now!”

Mike Lang looks at parsnips and peppers at the Pima County Public Library ‘Seed Library’ at the main branch in downtown Tucson.
Courtesy Pima County Public Library

The seed library’s popularity continues to swell. “In the last couple of years, we checked out about 28,000 seed packets each year. The first year we circulated about 7,000. That gives you an idea how much it’s grown,” Langley says. Indeed, the popularity of the seed lending program has become a new challenge for Langley; the main branch library where she works processes all of the seeds before they go out to the other branches. “It’s growing so much and all the libraries want to have it, but we can’t keep up the back end in terms of staff time,” she says.

According to the Seed Library Social Network, some 280 Western communities ranging from Anchorage, Alaska, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have launched or are considering launching seed lending programs, many in public libraries. Interested communities often call Pima County’s libraries for advice. Not everyone supports seed lending programs: Although libraries lend seeds, state Departments of Agriculture have informed some that they are in violation of seller-focused laws, such as requirements to regularly test seed germination rates. “Of course we don’t have the resources for that,” Langley says. In a fall meeting of the Arizona Library Association, groups with seed libraries plan to share notes on how to manage such confrontations, should they arise.

At some 4,000 years old, Tucson, Arizona, is the longest continuously inhabited place in North America. This is one reason that the region’s food crop diversity interests people like Gary Nabhan of Native Seeds/SEARCH: Farmers around Tucson have had a long time to work with crops and their wild relatives. And aridland seeds have had a jump start on traits — such as tolerance to heat, drought and poor soils — that are becoming more precious with growing greenhouse gas emissions.

Beans from the Pima County Public Library 'Seed Library.'
Courtesy Pima County Public Library

These days, when Tucsonans grow plants from seed to seed, sharing with other library patrons, they continue this millennia-old tradition. For its One Seed program, the library selects a local, easily grown, wind or insect pollinated plant that gardeners around the city grow at the same time, with librarians walking them through each step of the process, from planting to harvest. This year, gardens throughout Tucson are growing a heritage breed of cowpea developed by Tohono O’odham farmers. “We wanted to choose a native plant that has a history here,” Langley says.

Langley looks forward to collecting any donated cowpea returns. She says having harvests grown out by many gardeners will make the seed packets stronger. “We’re going to have jars at all of the locations, so people can see how their contribution makes a difference and combines with other community members’.” The seeds will be repackaged and loaned out again: a community’s worth of saved seeds, stronger for the mixing.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor for High Country News.

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