Petaluma Seed Bank seeks site for seed testing
One year after relocating to a smaller space, Petaluma Seed Bank’s next goal is to acquire property on which to do some gardening. Specializing in heirloom and open-pollination seeds, the company is seeking land so it can stage demos, hold seed trials, and do its own “grow-outs,” in which seeds are tested over time to make sure they are indeed open-pollinated (and heirloom if asserted to be so). Currently, most of the company’s grow-outs take place at a farm in Northern India.
“We’d like to buy or lease maybe two or three acres in a warmer location such as Santa Rosa,” said Ellyn Mavalwalla, manager, “but accessible to the public.”
Mavalwalla has worked for the store since 2009, when Baker Creek Heirloom Seed — a catalog and retail seed company in Mansfield, Missouri — selected Petaluma as the site of its first branch. Until a year ago, the seed store made its home in the spacious, 1920s-era bank building at the corner of East Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard. The store used the extra space to stock peripheral goods of all sorts.
“But it didn’t feel like a seed store anymore,” said Mavalwalla. So last year, on Earth Day, April 22, 2018, the store downsized by moving a block away.
It certainly feels like a seed store now.
In fact, when beginning growers walk into the store for the first time, they may feel disoriented by the display of nearly 1,400 kinds of seeds. The abyss between this abundance and the paltry offerings in the produce section of your local grocery may induce vertigo.
In other words, the store manages to defy the present — monocultures, genetically modified plants, seeds sprayed with pesticides — while evoking the past and, hopefully, the future. By definition, heirloom seeds have a 50-year history of producing the exact plant they are supposed to. We call them “heirloom” because they were often passed down from generation to generation. Open-pollinated plants are pollinated by the wind or insects, or are self-pollinating.
“There’s usually a specific reason why families saved heirloom seeds,” Mavalwalla said, citing as examples the straightest bean for canning, the sweetest corn, or the easiest-to-shell peas. “Many of the varieties in our store come from families.”
Mavalwalla recalls a customer who came into the store a few years ago looking for a true family heirloom, a small, orange squash that had been part of his childhood on a farm in Oregon. He couldn’t remember the name but when he mentioned his grandfather by last name, Gill, the staff quickly identified the plant as Gill’s Golden Pippin, introduced by the Gill Brothers Seed Company in Portland in the mid-1900’s.
Seeds from heirloom and open-pollinated plants produce the exact varietal year after year, but seeds from genetically modified plants or from hybrid plants yield unpredictable results.
Furthermore, it is illegal to save seeds from genetically modified plants.
Given current events in the insect kingdom, plants that rely on insects for pollination may be headed for trouble — another reason to starting saving seeds. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity cited a recent study revealing that U.S. agriculture is 48 times more toxic to insects than it was 20 years ago, and that 90 percent of that toxic load can be attributed to neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” the most widely used class of pesticides, now banned in Europe but not here. Neonics are alleged to be 1,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT. They came on the market in the 1990s and are used mostly as a coating on seeds.