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Petaluma Seed Bank seeks site for seed testing

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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.

Some progressive gardeners prefer to work with seeds that are not only time-tested, but locally grown. “Wanting locally grown seeds is a concern or desire for some customers,” Mavalwalla said, “and it makes it a little more challenging for them to find varieties. Our seed packets don’t have the growing origin on them, but there is a growers code on the back, and I can find out where the seeds were grown based on that.”

Mavalwalla recommends that local gardeners become acquainted with the Natural Gardening Company, the oldest organic nursery in the U.S. The company, based in Eldorado County, offers its products online. She also urges gardeners to become acquainted with the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County for vegetable seed sources. CropMobster Exchange is another possible source for seeds. Self-described as a “community resilience platform,” it allows gardeners to share resources and trade food and supplies. Mavalwalla calls it a “Craigslist for agriculture.”

Seed Savers Exchange, dedicated to saving heirloom seeds, has a seed-inventory book for their members, which lists the seeds along with the contact information of the grower (members can purchase directly from other members).

“The challenge with locally grown seeds is cross-pollination,” Mavalwalla said. “Each variety of a vegetable has to be carefully isolated to ensure the seeds will grow true the following season. For example, corn is wind-pollinated and can cross-pollinate up to two miles away. In order to get pure seed, no one else can be growing any kind of corn within two miles. And this is true for each and every variety of corn. You can see that this can get tricky very quickly!”

If you desire a locally-grown source of seeds but can’t find it, Mavalwalla recommends that you start with high quality seeds, learn the conditions of proper isolation, and save your own seeds year to year.

The store’s customer base is 50-75% home gardeners, depending on how you define them, with 25-30% commercial. The online operation is managed by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri but the Petaluma store takes phone orders and ships anywhere. The store stocks about 95% of the seeds in Baker Creek’s annual, 200-page Whole Seed Catalog.

The murals that cover the walls are by famed muralist John Michener. A mounted world map, peppered with pins and surrounded by small national flags, shows where visitors to the store this year have come from. In fact, the store has become a destination for garden clubs and serious gardeners around the world.

Gardeners new to plant-growing from seeds should keep in mind that generally speaking the bigger the seed the easier to start. For gardeners who prefer to buy small plants rather than starting them from seeds, Mavalwalla’s only warning is that you should know exactly what you’re buying and whether anything has been sprayed on them.

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