Six women sat around a table in the basement of the West Tisbury library. Their voices were soft, their laughter sweet, and their conversation candid and ongoing. The Seed Savers meet once a month at the West Tisbury library, swapping stories of plants, produce, abundance, and of course, seeds.
In agriculture and gardening, seed saving is an ancient practice of letting vegetables, grains, herbs, fruits, or flowers “winter over” and “go to seed” to be gathered, collected, and used again year to year. A seed library offers communities a place to store, swap, and “check out” gathered seeds for sharing and replanting. The Martha’s Vineyard Seed Library has a home in an old 24-drawer card catalogue, storing saved lettuce, tomatoes, beans, herbs, flowers, squash, and corn, among many other seeds. But it’s the seed library members that keep the tradition alive.
In the spring of 2014, Ken Greene, the founder of the country’s first community seed library, led a seed saving workshop on the Vineyard. He explained the concept: Create a central space where people can donate seeds to share, and “check out” seeds to plant in their own gardens, with the hopes they would again save seeds from those plants to return to the library at the end of the growing season. The launch of the local library was a collaborative effort between Island Grown Schools, the FARM Institute, and the West Tisbury library.
Over nettle and marshmallow tea, the group exchanged garden vignettes on a recent Monday evening. Okra, for example, is a Southern species adapting to the Island climate. The group reflected on its condition during July’s heatwave. “They wouldn’t open up,” member Janet Woodcock said. “The minute the heat broke, it went crazy.”
“Did July’s tornado affect anyone?” member Olivia Larson asked.
“Just popcorn,” another voice replied.
Seed saving offers lessons on plant adaptation through seasonal weather conditions, as well as plant resiliency.
“If you grow seeds from plants you saved here over time, the plants will get more resilient to the climate,” Woodcock added.
“I’ve definitely become more in tune with the seasons,” member and herbalist Jennie Isbell Shinn reflected.
The seed library mission is to educate communities on saving seeds that are heirloom, open-pollinated, nonhybrid varieties that will save true to form, according to seed library coordinator and garden manager of the FARM Institute Rebecca Sanders. “By preserving and sharing seeds, we can increase local food security, strengthen our sense of self-reliance, and safeguard genetic diversity while honoring the age-old tradition of passing down seeds from generation to generation,” Sanders said.
“When I first started, I knew you could save seeds, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Woodcock said. “All of the different families. What crossed and what didn’t cross. I felt like I was back in college.” Woodcock and partner Carol Collins are both members of the seed library. They have a home garden, and land at Island Grown Initiative’s Thimble Farm. “If you save a sweet pepper seed and a hot pepper seed and they’ve been growing next to each other, chances are you’ll get a sweet-hot pepper seed,” Collins said.
On a recent trip to Copenhagen, Collins and Woodcock stumbled on another seed saving group. “We look the same the world over,” Collins said. “A bunch of people sitting around a table, picking through seeds, laughing and talking.”
They were given Danish green kitchen squash seeds — a squash thought to have been extinct until seeds were discovered at a farm outside Copenhagen seven years ago. “They managed to grow two plants, saved seeds, and kept growing and saving.” Collins and Woodcock planted the seeds, and now have a large, healthy Danish squash on the vine. “The squash, of course, is no longer even remotely extinct,” Collins said.
Collins and Woodcock are also planting a variety of tomatoes that crossed over time.
“They’re the most resilient plant,” Woodcock said. “They grow in partial sun. It’s ridiculous. I started saving its seeds, and now it’s perfect.”
And anyone can access these magic tomato seeds — they’re stored in the seed library.
“I think this is a wisdom-keeping,” Isbell Shinn said. “It requires a certain amount of patience, but it has inherent delight. We’re the delight keepers.”
“You also get to see multiple generations of something,” Dani deRuyter added. “It takes time to see an evolution of what you’re creating, but you get to witness a generational shift — that’s a pretty cool thing to see.”
The M.V. Community Seed Library hosts a Seed Saving Party on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 2 to 4 pm at the West Tisbury library. Farmers, gardeners, seed savers, and plant lovers are invited to gather and celebrate the season. Participants are encouraged to bring their favorite locally grown, open-pollinated, nonhybrid plant material to save seed from: overripe vegetables, dried corn and bean pods, lettuce stalks, and herb and flower seed pods. All are welcome, and the Seed Library is always accepting new members. Call 508-693-3366 for more information.