Green Garden Dreams

The Joy of San Diego Vegetable Gardening

San Diego Seed Company “germinated” in an urban farming class at San Diego City College. Students Brijette Romstedt and Carrie Driskill had been casting about for ideas for a business to start. One day in class, their professor and farmer extraordinaire Paul Maschka gave a lecture about seeds, hybrids, genetically modified (GMO) crops and the like, and discovered that San Diego did not have a successful seed company. That was the perfect seed they needed: they suddenly saw the light (and the soil and the water and … you get the idea) and knew what they wanted to do.

Focusing on heirloom, open-pollinated varieties of vegetables, herbs and companion flowers, San Diego Seed Company fits into a wider picture of current hot trends in locally grown foods, home food gardening and the dawning awareness of the need for sustainable practices that are sweeping the country and world.

Heirloom varieties come from a time before industrialized agriculture and the push to sacrifice quality for efficiency. A classic example is the tomato: hybrid varieties of tomatoes were bred with a focus on high yield, long distance packing, shipping and storage, with taste and seed-saving a distant secondary concern. As a result, we have almost flavorless and strangely textured things we call tomatoes in the stores. Anyone who has tasted a fresh, truly ripe tomato from the garden has the proverbial light bulb go off: “So this is what a tomato is supposed to be like!”

This revelation goes double for these heirloom varieties, whose rich flavor and diverse colors and shapes hale from a time when the pace of life allowed for the slow development of what people wanted to enjoy on their dinner table and grow in their home garden or small farm, rather than plants conforming to the needs of industrial growers, chemical companies and distributors for supermarket chains.

Heirloom varieties show a great abundance of desirable characteristics, such as rich flavors, colors and shapes and adaptations that have survived thousands of years. They can be grown true to the parent from the seeds in the fruits.

Talking with Carrie and Brijette, their passion and knowledge come through in everything they say. They are in the right place at the right time, and doing something they truly believe in and that makes them happy. And they have done their homework in terms of understanding seed saving. This knowledge and commitment serves their customers and the community well. Of course, they will be the first to admit there’s always a tremendous amount to learn about plants and starting and growing a business. They are going to grow along with their seeds.

Focusing on crops adapted to San Diego’s environment, SDSC fills a unique niche. While other seed companies sell varieties grown in and adapted mainly to other parts of the country, SDSC grows the seed locally, and has done research into what types are best for San Diego climate and soil conditions.

If you have ever grown vegetables, you’ve probably noticed the planting schedules on the back of the seed packets. “When all danger of frost is past” is a typical guide that gives one a hint to the typical American four-season temperate climates seeds are developed and marketed to. These planting schedules often do not apply to San Diego.

All of SDSC’s original seed lines came from local or regional organic farms.

There is a reason that San Diego county has “more small farms (less than 10 acres) than any other county” (San Diego farm Bureau – http://sdfarmbureau.org/SD-Ag/Ag-Facts.php ). San Diego is not only blessed with a mild Mediterranean-like climate that allows year around vegetable gardening, but has many microclimates created by the varied terrain and the influence of the ocean in coastal communities.

Buying seeds from other areas is also less sustainable, in part because it depends on the use of petrochemicals for transportation. Using locally grown seed closes the circle of sustainability: in growing, transporting, buying, and eating local food, buying local seeds will provide the missing element. The locally grown crops will be grown from seed grown locally.

As the cycle continues of growing seed locally, harvesting and replanting from their own production, SDSC’s seed lines will become better adapted to San Diego conditions. This is also in harmony with sustainable practices.

As they grow as an enterprise and gear up for larger production, they will eventually go beyond selling to local home growers, and sell to farmers.

Both Brijette and Carrie are Midwestern country stock, having grown up in Kansas amid great fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Their grandparents both had farms, and vegetable gardens were part of their early lives.

They saw where food comes from, which is part of their calling now as business owners and teachers as they instruct classes at Wild Willow Farms that focus on seed saving.

Like plants in healthy soil, some of what they learned they attribute to osmosis. Carrie worked for Karen Contreras of Urban Plantations, learning about integrated pest management, seasonal planting and many other topics a budding seed farmer needs.

But growing vegetables for seed production is different than growing for produce. You cannot both harvest the produce and use it for seed production.

Being females in a male-dominated industry is not an easy seed to sow, but these two women have what it takes to succeed, and they are in the right place in the right time. Their sale at Earth Day 2011 was a roaring success.

Portions of the proceeds go to Wild Willow Farms, and helps them to develop and manage the collaborative seed bank. A special grant from the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation also helped fertilize the seed bank project, which helped build the greenhouses, purchase a refrigerator for seed storage, and provide classes to inform the community on how to processes the seeds to supply the bank.

San Diego Seed Company has opened their website for business as of June 2012:
http://shop.sandiegoseedcompany.com/
Seeds are reasonably priced at $3.00 per packet (compare to $3.49 for Seeds of Change’s organic but non-local seeds)

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