Seed Library FAQ (SaLSA)

Last updated January 2021

What is so important about saving seeds?

Saving and stewarding seeds is important for a number of reasons. A Seeds of Change paper entitled The Seed Saving Movement provides a handful of solid reasons why people should save seeds:

  • Seed Security: By saving seeds, a gardener gains control over that little piece of the food supply, and no longer needs to depend on seed stores or catalogs for obtaining difficult to find seed.
  • Regional Adaptation: Much of the commercially available seed has been selected because it performs fairly well across the entire country. When gardeners save seed from their own best performing plants, grown on their land and in their own ecosystem, they gradually develop varieties better adapted to their soil, climate, and growing conditions.
  • Consistent Quality: Large seed suppliers rarely “rogue” the fields to pull out inferior or off-type plants, so the open-pollinated (OP) seeds they sell have inferior specimens in the mix. (This might not be a bad thing; when saving corn seed, native Americans would hedge their bets by including a few kernels taken from less-than-perfect ears. A reflection of the wisdom of those who understand the intricacies of seed propagation, and the unknowable factors that limit man’s role in the system…).
  • Better Nutrition: Consuming a wide variety of fresh, whole foods prevents nutritional deficiencies and increases one’s overall nutrition by exposing them to a broader range of nutrients. Loss of food diversity compromises health by narrowing a person’s food choices.
  • Preserving Both Heritage and Biodiversity: Today’s multinational corporations select seed varieties based on their own financial interests. These companies control 82 percent of the world’s seed market, which includes 75 percent of the vegetable seed market. It is left to small farmers and home gardeners to preserve literally thousands of years of biodiversity.

Bottom line: people who save seed are taking a more active role in deciding which characteristics of a plant or produce they wish to see passed forward to successive generations, the essence of what is referred to as “seed stewardship”. In addition, gardening organically allows folks to make important, constructive adjustments to the food system on which they depend.

Those running the Davis Seed Savers Alliance (a group associated with the University of California at Davis) spell things out quite succinctly: “Humans have been saving seeds for over twelve thousand years. However, in our culture much of that knowledge, along with significant biodiversity, has been lost over the last hundred years.”; the folks at the International Seed Saving Institute (ISSI) add a statement of concern over dwindling food sources and a lack of biodiversity: “As late as 1900, food for the planet’s hungry was provided by as many as 1500 different plants, each further represented by thousands of different cultivated varieties. Today, over 90% of the world’s nutrition is provided by just 30 different plants, and only four (wheat, rice, corn and soybeans) provide 75% of the calories consumed by man.”

We at Silicon Valley Seeds agree that our seed knowledge is in desperate need of help, so we are working to restore some of the important seed connections that have gone missing of late, in hopes of rekindling interest in what we believe to be a better, healthier, more sustainable approach to our food system.

What is a “seed library”, and why do so many seed libraries fail?

At a conceptual level, a seed “library” is a rather simple idea to understand and describe. Seed libraries allow gardeners to “check out” a bit of starter seed, plant that seed in their gardens, let some of the grown plants go to seed, collect that seed, and “check in” a portion of the grown seed to the library in what is a beautiful, complete cycle. Easy peasy, right?

Except that it’s not.

At least four major stumbling blocks exist in the idealized “seed library” scenario just described.

  1. Seed saving is a skillset, one which is seen as having very little value in today’s cultural context.
  2. People are being provided very little in the way of incentive and educational support to help them actually be successful at growing, saving, and sharing seed.
  3. Little to no tracking is done on how people are getting along with their gardening and seed saving activities.
  4. Seed libraries tend to reside within existing public libraries, where we find librarians trying to take on the many and varied functions needed to maintain a viable seed library, with varying degrees of success. More often than not the people interested in seeing to the seeds are not interested in operating as a part of the public library system, and vice versa.

As a result of these and other challenges, what starts out as a great idea, having a seed library, devolves fairly quickly into hosting a seed giveaway. Over time a seed giveaway becomes harder and harder to justify, and one day the plug is unceremoniously pulled. Such is the death spiral of today’s “traditional” seed library.

A couple of interesting things to take note of.

First, housing a seed library within a public library is quite natural. Why? Because public libraries embody the notion of the “public commons”, and the public commons is exactly where seeds belong. Many of the problems encountered in today’s agrobusiness are rooted in the notion that seeds should be treated as ownable intellectual property, which they are not.

Second, while establishing a seed library that maintains the full cycle would be a very good thing (the full cycle as envisioned being seed checkout to seed check-in), unless and until some of the issues that inhibit the creation of such a sustainable system are addressed, we are merely setting ourselves up for further failure.

What is “SaLSA”, and how does it improve things?

SaLSA is basically a seed library system with a twist. The acronym SaLSA stands for “Seed and Library System Access“. As the name implies, registered members are provided access to seeds thru an easy to use web-based library system. Besides a ready supply of seed, the SaLSA system provides a few key things:

  • a clear understanding and partitioning of responsibilities into two very distinct roles, namely those of seed management and seed distribution.
  • a way of offloading a good many of the more seed-centric tasks from those who have neither the time nor the inclination to properly see to those tasks.
  • a set of general, centralized mechanisms for capturing and fulfilling seed orders, maintaining a volunteer base, and supporting a distributed community of gardeners within Santa Clara County.
  • a means of employing a sustainable system that leverages use of the web and has been designed to be capable of growing and evolving.

SaLSA represents one implementation of a seed library model. The system attempts to address several of the existing issues found in traditional seed library operations.

  1. The seed saving and organic growing skillsets are placed front and center through videos and articles placed on the website you are currently looking at.
  2. Silicon Valley Seeds offers ongoing classes and seminars to teach those interested about organic gardening, seed saving/stewardship, and food preservation.
  3. Because there’s a record of which members are growing which plants, there is now the ability to offer specific assistance and guidance along the way. In addition, growers can be called on to provide insights and feedback regarding the challenges and successes they’ve encountered along the way.
  4. Librarians within the public library system no longer need to field gardening or seed-related questions, no longer need to figure out how and where to obtain seed stock, and no longer need to deal with receiving and/or qualifying “returned” seed. All of these functions are offloaded to Silicon Valley Seeds.
  5. Growers who make use of SaLSA now have skin in the game. There will now be a system which tracks who is growing what, and there is a small monetary cost imposed on new growers who use the system, which serves to drive home the point that this is not a one-sided seed giveaway.
  6. Growers with proven abilities and a willingness to contribute back to the system will be invited to become “seed guardians”. These growers will eventually form the backbone of the Silicon Valley Seeds community of growers, and as such will be allowed to forgo the annual fee imposed on untested growers.

The intent here is to make SaLSA trackable, scalable and sustainable in ways that more simplified seed library implementations simply can’t be.

How is Silicon Valley Seeds and SaLSA helping south bay growers?

Silicon Valley Seeds is working towards becoming an information hub and support system for those who garden in Santa Clara county. Our organization hopes to be instrumental in shaping people’s relationship with their food system, by

  • educating local residents about growing, harvesting and preserving organic foods;
  • providing encouragement to those who are new to gardening;
  • promoting a more health-conscious “garden to table” mode of living;
  • helping to re-establish important skills that are in danger of being lost;
  • guiding those interested in saving and stewarding seeds;
  • encouraging a sense of community, with people who share with and support one another;
  • protecting biodiversity within popular locally grown food crops;
  • creating a seed shed of locally adapted plants which grow well within our environment;
  • recognizing and sharing the abundance of the seeds;

Be sure to check in periodically for current information, our news area for the latest posted articles, videos, and recipes, and our event calendar for dates and times of talks, tabling events, films and social gatherings.

How can area gardeners make use of SaLSA to obtain seed?

The first thing to understand is that in trying to foster sharing within the context of community, Silicon Valley Seeds has decided to implement a three-tiered web based membership system.

  • The learner tier membership is free for anyone to use, and is designed to give members access to a wide range of information on the subjects we at Silicon Valley Seeds teach on, namely organic gardening, seed saving/stewardship, produce usage within the kitchen, and food/produce preservation techniques. It also provides a structured basis for sharing information as a community.
  • The grower tier membership provides members the added benefit of receiving seed to plant in their gardens, accomplishing this by way of an easy to use online seed order system. Members of the grower tier pay a small annual fee (the equivalent of about three cups of coffee at the nearby coffee house) in order to gain access to and support the system.
  • The guardian tier membership provides experienced and engaged growers unrestricted, no-cost access to the seed system. Access to this level of membership is by invitation only.

User registration is designed to be extremely easy, involving a minimum of information. Each user is asked for their first and last name, email address, and zipcode. That’s it. Information provided is used strictly for the purposes of seeing to seed distribution and verification of member participation: A member’s name is attached to the seed they order and their email address is used only for communicating the status of their order (when an order has been received, when it is ready for pickup, info about supplied grab bag varieties, etc).

What is seed management, and who sees to it?

Seed management is handled by Silicon Valley Seeds, and involves those functions directly centered around the seed, namely obtaining seed (from both seed companies and local seed guardians), storing seed, teaching about seed stewardship and organic gardening, maintaining/enhancing the online order system, organizing/directing volunteer resources, and staying on top of the happenings within the greater seed saving community.

What is seed distribution, and who sees to it?

Seed distribution is the process of getting seed into the hands of those who wish to grow a plant. Distribution can take place at any number of different locations.

SaLSA is designed to eventually make use of distribution partners of all kinds, be they public libraries, schools, companies, garden groups, or community organizations. For now, Silicon Valley Seeds will be responsible for seeing to seed distribution, but we have plans for the future, so stay tuned…

Is there a cost associated with using SaLSA?

For seed guardians, no, there is no charge. For new growers wishing to make use of the system as a means of obtaining starter seed for their gardens, yes, we impose a small annual fee that is used to cover the many incidental expenses associated with running a seed lending system, which include (but are not limited to) the purchase of specialty seed, shipping expenses to obtain seeds from companies (not covered, even for donated seed), organizing and seeing to the processing of garden grown seed, maintaining seed inventories, properly storing seed, maintaining and updating the SaLSA online order system, developing various educational programs on topics related to the Silicon Valley Seeds mission (seed stewardship, seed saving, organic gardening, cooking/using garden grown produce in the kitchen, preserving the harvest, etc), office administration, photocopying of instructional materials, etc.

So Silicon Valley Seeds is selling seeds through SaLSA?

No! Absolutely not! Seed is always provided free of charge. However, until a grower becomes a seed guardian, a small fee is imposed on the use of the seed library’s online ordering system. Again, just to be crystal clear, seed guardian members (growers who have shown themselves to be willing and able to grow and return seed) make use of the SaLSA online system free of charge, while grower members (those who might be wanting to give gardening a try or who are interested in growing only for produce, not for seed) are charged a small fee to use the service. Yes, we wish to encourage those interested in organic gardening and yes, we wish to see to the establishment of a strong community of growers, but what we provide does not come without costs and we recognize that we can’t (nor should we be expected to) cover the various expenses associated with this undertaking. If you have a better idea on how we might go about sharing the financial burdens, please let us know

What methods of payment can one use to signup as a Grower?

Silicon Valley Seeds can process payments via credit (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express) or banking debit card. Please note that we DO NOT save away card information, and that the info submitted takes place via an independent, secure gateway.

We will also accept a check or money order made out to Silicon Valley Seeds and sent to us at 1050 Kiely Blvd. # 2453, Santa Clara, CA 95055. (Please do not send cash). Understand that when paying by check, a new Grower membership will not become active until the check has cleared, where payment made by credit or debit card becomes active immediately.

Can a Grower get a refund?

Sorry but no, the annual fee is non-refundable.

Can commercial seed companies donate seed?

Yes. We very much appreciate receiving starter seed donations from companies which supply organic seed. An extensive list of companies that sell organic seed to gardeners can be found on our seed companies page.

Companies that support Silicon Valley Seeds through the donation of seed are indicated with a seed heart graphic in their listing description.

What kinds of seeds can growers get through SaLSA?

Growers are offered a number of different varieties of seed via SaLSA. In addition to specific varieties, growers can also choose from “grab bag” offerings, where selection of the specific variety is left to Silicon Valley Seeds. (The reason for having the grab bag option? We often have smaller quantities of a particular variety of plant available, and rather than listing specifics for each of these for a short period of time, we make them available to growers as a grab bag).

All seeds offered through the online system (both specific varieties and grab bag offerings) are known to be open pollinated and chemically untreated, making them perfect for those looking to grow/save seed as well as those wanting to grow food within an organic gardening program. Seeds provided are those which we here at Silicon Valley Seeds believe will grow well in our south bay climate and environment. Heirloom seeds with rich backstories are especially sought after. The specific list of seeds being offered is always subject to change.

Why the focus on open pollinated seed? Because open pollination results in genetically diverse plants. Pollination in an open, unrestricted system is nature’s way of seeing to it that genetic variance is encouraged, and that over time adaptations will slowly be made in response to changes in the environmental conditions in which a plant is grown. Even as these adaptations are made, the plant’s essential characteristics remain largely unchanged, resulting in what we commonly hear referred to as “true-to-type” plants.

Offered seed will always consist of a combination of both warm and cool season crops; those new to gardening might want to refer to the Silicon Valley Seeds weekly todo list to get an idea of what to plant when. In addition to veggies, the offerings include a number of flower seeds, mainly because we believe it important to keep our pollinators happy, but also because flowers make us smile.

Can individual growers donate seed?

Absolutely. We do make efforts to qualify the seed saving abilities of growers prior to placing their seed into general circulation. Once qualified, an experienced grower is invited to become a “seed guardian”, at which point they are able to supply grown seed into the SaLSA system. In addition, individual growers are encouraged to donate unused portions of seed packets, as a good many gardeners growing veggies in compact spaces here in the south bay often can’t make use of all of the seed contained in a packet.

Do you accept and/or share GMO seeds?

No, we do not accept, nor do we support the use of, GMO seeds.

Do you accept and/or share hybrid seeds?

Hybrid (F1) seeds provide a bit of a conundrum. Because Silicon Valley Seeds is interested in encouraging the saving and stewarding of seeds and plants, hybrid seeds are not all that desirable because plants grown from such seed will not produce “true to type” plants (which is to say, plants with the same characteristics as those found in their parent). That said, hybrid seed can be of great benefit to those growers looking to solve specific pest and/or disease problems, or whose interests lie more towards the produce rather than the next generation of seeds. So to answer a rather interesting question with an equally interesting answer, we do not make hybrid seed available to growers through the SaLSA order system, but we do accept the donation of company supplied hybrid seeds and make those seeds available to area gardeners at our twice-yearly seed swaps.

How do people go about donating seed they’ve grown?

We very much appreciate receiving donations of locally grown, open-pollinated seed (especially those considered to be heirlooms). We are constantly adding new articles and videos describing how to go about saving seeds from different plants.

The general steps for saving seeds are always the same:

  • Collect, clean and dry the seeds you’d like to save from crops harvested from your garden, setting aside whatever portion you wish to keep available for your own use.
  • Once dried, place the collected seed in containers, using one container for each variety of plant whose seed is being saved. Containers that can be used run the gamut: baby food jars, small lidded plastic containers (old margarine containers, small Tupperware containers, etc), mason jars, old prescription bottles, coin envelopes, whatever is readily available. Just be sure the containers in question are clean and dry.
  • Label each container with the information for the seed it contains. Feel free to print out and make use of the Silicon Valley Seeds’ seed label sheets or design and use your own labels. What’s important is the information provided on the label, not the look of the label itself. Labels should contain at a minimum the following pieces of information:
    1. the name of the type of plant (eg. “Tomato”)
    2. the name of the specific variety of plant (eg. “Early Girl”)
    3. the year the seed was harvested (eg. “2020”)
    4. any details you’d like to include that might help others be successful at growing the same plant in years to come.
  • In addition to basic info, growers might want to also share additional information on growing conditions, plant population sizes, problems encountered along the way, etc. This information will prove to be invaluable to those wishing to make use of this seed down the line.
Where and when can SaLSA orders be picked up?

In this initial phase of development, seeds are available for pickup by appointment only from the Silicon Valley Seeds demonstration garden, located at 2499 Homestead Road in Santa Clara (at the corner of Homestead and San Tomas expressway).

How many of an ordered seed is provided to growers?

Each ordered variety will contain 10 to 15 seeds (a “pinch”, in the case of tiny seeds), which should be enough seed to produce at least 7 plants.

Is there a limit to the amount of seed a grower can get through SaLSA?

Yes. We limit the number of seed sets provided each member to 10 in a given six month grow period. The two six month periods are October thru March, when growers normally focus on ordering seed for their spring planting, and April thru September, when growers normally focus on ordering seed for their fall planting. Seeds need not be ordered all at once. For instance, a member could decide to order 5 types of seed in November, 3 types of seed in January, and 4 types of seed in February. Seed counts made by members are reset to 0 on midnight of March 31st and September 30th, at which point any unused portion of seed still available to a member for the previous period is lost.

How can one tell whether seed being offered is from a company or a local grower?

By default, seeds made available within the SaLSA system have been supplied by one of the companies listed on our seed companies page, and so come with all of the quality assurances that accompany commercially produced seed. When a seed variety being offered thru SaLSA has instead been locally grown and saved by a seed guardian, it will contain the words “Guardian grown seed” at the beginning of its description.

Sorry, but the SaLSA system will not provide an indication of from which seed company a specific seed variety comes.

What seeds are currently available within the SaLSA offering?

Growers can always find a list of the latest seeds being offered on the SaLSA seed offering page.