When I lived in New York City, I could not keep a single plant alive in my overheated apartment. So imagine my surprise when my husband and I moved to the warm Los Angeles climate and I discovered how easy it is to grow plants — including luscious vegetables — year-round.
Just put them into the ground, water them regularly and watch them grow.
But even as my expertise as backyard gardener grew over the years, I continued to depend on seedlings purchased from my local nursery. Growing vegetables from seeds, I’d heard, could yield good results. But, really, why bother?
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Then I got the chance to find out at a seed swap that was taking place in Orange County.
“The idea is to grow vegetables and fruit that are perfectly suited to the local environment,” Sharael Kolberg told me. She is the community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education, the nonprofit that organized the seed swap in Laguna Beach under the tall shady trees at the Anneliese School.
A new seed library is born
The group of about 100 gardening enthusiasts was also there to celebrate the inauguration of a seed library at the school, with food and Champagne, and a few words from local experts.
Small white boxes that looked like traditional library card drawers were set out on tables and visitors avidly perused the donated seed packets of squash, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and more — all organic and non-GMO.
The primary reason to grow food from seeds? “It tastes good!” was Linda Elbert’s answer. A member of Slow Food Orange County, Elbert added that the food is local, fresh and picked when it’s ripe.
“Having seeds could be the difference between living and dying,” said Chris Prelitz of Transition Laguna Beach.
Prelitz, a local environmentalist, said that seed swapping is one way to create sustainable food habits and strengthen community bonds.
In the past, he said, immigrant farmers who had to flee their village for any reason would sew seeds into the lining of their clothing for safe keeping. It was that vital to keep their food supply going.
But as I soon learned, this live-or-die urgency about saving seeds is felt by many people today — though for a different reason.
Protect and save non-GMO seeds
Big agricultural businesses have been promoting and patenting — and forcing farmers to buy — their genetically modified seeds, and this has galvanized environmental activists around the world to protect and save heirloom, organic, non-GMO seeds.
Seed Savers Exchange for example, which began in 1975, offers an online seed swap that “saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.”
The San Francisco Seed Library, opened in 2011, allows visitors to check out and donate seeds.
Though most preserve vegetable and fruit seeds, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London is dedicated to saving seeds from plants around the world that are under threat of extinction. And the Chicago Botanic Garden has a tall grass prairie seed bank to preserve native species.
The Indian group called Navdana, begun by feminist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, has organized more than 100 community seed banks across India to protect biodiversity and to support small farmers.
Concern about the spread of genetically modified seeds caused the Council for Responsible Genetics to create the Safe Seed Pledge. Seed sellers who sign it declare they do not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has signed this pledge, as have more than 100 commercial seed sellers. This is important because in 2005 Monsanto, the primary developer of genetically modified crops, bought the vegetable seed company Seminis, which sells seeds under many brand names.
So it is gardeners and cooks in communities around the country who are actively preserving the health and diversity of organic, non-GMO seeds — and thus our good food.
In some parts of the world, swapping seeds is a tradition that has never stopped.
“When you travel through Italy, you see that each community grows its own produce, and makes its own cheeses, olive oils and meats,” Elbert said. “They all have slightly different soils and climate — there is tremendous diversity. Trading seeds is common among farmers.”
Since I had not brought any seeds to donate for the Orange County seed swap, it didn’t feel right for me to take any from the white drawers set out on the tables, but I was sorely tempted.
Luckily Meg Heisinger, from the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, was on hand to demonstrate how to save seeds of winter squash. It looked so simple that I now know that I am ready and willing to join the seed swapping movement.
How to save winter squash seeds
- Let the squash grow a bit past the ripened stage.
- Cut the squash in half and scoop out seeds.
- Put the seeds in a strainer and, under running water, gently rub them with a spoon to separate the pulp from the seeds.
- Place the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry, but not-too-sunny area.
- Once the seeds have dried, put them into a paper bag or envelope — they can last for about a year.
- That’s it. They’ll be ready to plant in the spring for a new crop.
Other seeds that are great for beginners to save include: basil, beans, beets, carrots, chard, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, spinach, sunflowers and tomatoes.
For more information, contact:
SEEDS Library of Laguna Beach (by appointment)
Anneliese School, Willowbrook Campus
20062 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Main photo: Seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory