EL CERRITO -- Dozens of residents walking away with free plants at last weekend's Earth Day celebration were taking part in an innovative new program in El Cerrito that's part of a worldwide trend.

The seedlings were part of services offered by sponsors of a seed library that has just been established at the city's Recycling Center at the east end of Schmidt Lane.

The seed library, to be housed in card catalogs in the center's office lobby, will contain more than 100 types of seeds that residents can "borrow" and plant in their gardens, according to program co-sponsor Tom Panas.

Among the seeds available will be nine different types of lettuce, five varieties of broccoli, 15 varieties of herbs (including six kinds of basil), and 14 varieties of flower seeds, Panas said.

Borrowers are encouraged to donate seeds harvested from the plants that they grew from the originals back to the library, said co-sponsor Robin Mitchell, who was handing out plants at the Earth Day festivities April 26 at the Community Center.

"If people need seeds that we don't have we'll get it to them," Mitchell said. "We'll also grow out seedlings for them if they don't want to raise the plants from seed."

Mitchell said seeds can normally be kept up to about three years, but "some seed that's left in the ground for 100 years will germinate eventually."

There also will be seeds from plants that are native to the El Cerrito area, including primrose, phacelia and milkweed, according to Panas.

Milkweed is an attraction for caterpillars, which grow into Monarch butterflies, but the caterpillars are gradually being eradicated with pesticides, Mitchell said.

"We're starting to lose biodiversity," she said. "The milkweed serves as food for caterpillars which are (in turn) food for birds, and the butterflies provide pollination."

Panas said he was thinking at first about putting the seed library in El Cerrito's library branch but decided that the recycling center was "a better place for it."

"The center is open more hours and our likely target population goes up there," he said. "It's something small and sustainable and a perfect match for the space and place."

El Cerrito is joining Richmond in establishing a seed library. Richmond's seed collection program, Richmond Grows, was established in May of 2010 and is housed in its main library, said Katy Curl, Richmond's director of library and cultural services.

"People are really happy to have it here," Curl said. "We have been getting a lot of inquiries from places wanting to establish (seed) libraries, and we're trying to catch up on that."

There are more than 260 seed libraries operating worldwide with another 140 or so that are being established, said Richmond Grows co-founder Rebecca Newburn,

Richmond Grows has a "create a library" section on its web page, RichmondGrowsSeeds.org, that has been used to inspire and support other communities to open seed libraries, Newburn said.

"The best way to help your community's seed lending library is to plant a garden," according to the website. "By using the seeds that are available free of charge, you can benefit from the plants and help to replenish the supply at the library."

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