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Natural Awakenings Chicago

A Tiny Heirloom Seed Secures Our Future

Mar 26, 2014 11:03AM ● By Vicki Nowicki

A seed-lending library is about to sprout up in the western suburbs. These novelty libraries are sprouting up here and there, like a pioneer species of plant on a disturbed Midwestern prairie. They are coming into communities with seeds for people and they are coming to try to heal a situation that has become disrupted. All across the country, seeds are being given out to see if communities will respond by growing food again and respond by trying to remember what it was like to save their own seed and stockpile their own seed and have plenty of their own seed. There was a time when people had a sense of seed security and food sovereignty.

It is hard to imagine that only about 100 years ago, many Americans lived on self-sufficient farms, breeding their own animals and growing their own crops from seed that they had saved right there in the fields. The main source of power in the garden was animal power that was fueled by the grain and hay they produced. Buying seeds and fertilizers and chemicals for the garden would have been just too expensive and for that matter, would have been unnecessary.

Diversity Lost

We Americans were flush with a diversity of fruits, vegetables and herbs as millions of immigrants flooded our country, bringing with them their seed collections that each family regarded as their treasured heirlooms. But the sons and daughters grew up, not realizing that Grandma’s tomato would be forgotten, and we lost track of 94 percent of that diversity of vegetable and fruit variety that we had 100 years ago.

Looking back, we wish we had not taken for granted that those seeds that will grow back in exactly the same way as their parent did (called open-pollinated seeds) were very special. We could grow the vegetables and simply save the seed that was created. It was an innocent time when nothing special needed to be done to keep growing food every year and we didn’t need a seed catalog or a garden center, even if there had been one.

Today, we are facing untold pressures from rising costs, hybrid seeds that can’t be regenerated, GMO seed companies seeking to dominate the industry by buying out smaller seed companies, and unstable weather patterns, to name a few.

Liberty Gardens Seed–Lending Library, Downers GroveThe problems that face us are big, but they require small, regional solutions that a large government is not suited to handle. As a matter of fact, small, dedicated groups of local people are the only kinds of suitable groups that have ever been able to make changes like this. If we can make seeds for food crops available to the people in our communities for free and ask them to grow a few of the plants out to make seeds, we can tap into the power of the plants. Many plants can make hundreds—even thousands—of seeds from one plant. Then, if the grower can just return twice as many seeds as he/she borrowed, we can quickly start to build a seed bank that belongs to us.

Beans, Peas, Lettuce, Tomatoes

This is the process the new Liberty Gardens Seed–Lending Library, in Downers Grove, follows to get new members started saving seeds. There are almost 200 of these libraries in existence in this country, and more forming regularly.

• New members arrive to attend anorientation. They are given a Power Point instructional session on the four basic easy vegetables.

• They are given a hands-on visual demonstration of how to save those seeds.

• They register to be a member and sign a promise to grow out their seeds!

• They pick out five packets of heirloom seeds and record what they are.

• When they make their first return, they will be eligible to get their next instruction on biennials.

• The whole summer will be filled with continuing instruction, the last being hand pollination of corn and squash.

• There will be many activities, including potlucks, harvesting from special seed gardens, guest speakers and demonstrations of gardening techniques.

Liberty Gardens Seed LibraryThe mission of Liberty Gardens library, then, will be to stockpile seeds within the families of a community in order to achieve a certain seed security for the future of the food supply and to create a certain gene pool for the adaptability of the food supply in case of extreme climate change. We will specialize in rare and ancient vegetables. We will also specialize in seed gardens so that members will have many opportunities to practice harvesting seeds.

The Liberty Gardens Seed-Lending Library will launch at 12:30 p.m., April 12 and April 26, at Downers Historical Museum, 831 Maple Ave., Downers Grove.

Vicki Nowicki serves on the Slow Food Ark of Taste Committee that seeks out and protects rare foods. For more information, email [email protected] or visit and