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Seed Businesses in Full Bloom

July 04, 1991|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a free-lance writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

A handful of North County's home-grown businesses specialize not in produce or flowers, but in seeds.

Among them is Charles Ledgerwood's seed store, which put down roots 58 years ago across from Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad.

Several months a year, the small lot adjoining the cottage-like store is abloom with native California flowers.

Ledgerwood's domain--complete with white picket fence--brings to mind an old-fashioned corner candy store. But here, the shopkeeper dispenses a scoopful of seeds instead of penny candy.

Ledgerwood, an energetic octogenarian and former mayor of Carlsbad, declares: "We're the only ones still crazy enough to sell just 25 cents' worth of seeds. We'll break up any package of seeds for orders of 25 cents and up."

Along with seeds, Ledgerwood gives gardening and fertilizing tips, and shares his extensive knowledge of plants suited to the local climate. Generations of county residents have filed through the store, which is jammed floor to ceiling with garden supplies and sacks of seeds. Here, a few dollars buys enough seeds to plant an abundant vegetable garden.

"Gardening people are the world's nicest," says Ledgerwood, carefully shaking out a few pennies' worth of seeds onto an antique metal scale. "That's what keeps me cemented to this business."

Regular customers listen intently as he explains the merits and drawbacks of the exotic arugula, seven kinds of lettuce or 10 varieties of beans. Behind him, shelves lined with metal boxes hold a multitude of choices.

"I test out new things all the time to make sure they are adapted to our climate," said Ledgerwood, who runs the store with the help of his daughter, Eldena Bratton. He keeps records of all incoming seeds in case problems develop, and grows seeds discontinued by larger nurseries.

This is an operation that requires room to grow. "Old-fashioned seed stores disappear because land is becoming so scarce," Ledgerwood said.

He carries 150 kinds of flower seeds, but Ledgerwood is particularly proud of his unique mix of California native wildflowers.

The mix contains more than 24 varieties of California wildflowers, including flax, colinsia, godetias, and California and red Flanders poppies. Outside the store, living specimens wave in the ocean breeze.

Carter Seeds, just off California 78 in Vista, deals strictly in ornamental seeds--one of the few firms anywhere to do so. "We have enough seeds here to replenish the world," said owner Tom Frick. Indeed, half of Carter's seeds are bound for the international market.

"For us, money grows on trees," Frick said. Still, the business is one that requires patience and manual labor. "We gather seeds in parks and sometimes in people's back yards. Bees and insects do the pollinating, and they don't charge too much."

Some seeds, such as conifers, are only viable for 30 days, and must be refrigerated. Others have withstood several millennia inside Egyptian pyramids. Certain crops can only be gathered every other year.

"Some begonia seeds are worth more than their weight in gold, but there may be billions of them in an ounce," Frick said. "Ornamentals like the philodendron must be pollinated by hand, since the beetle that fertilizes it in the tropics doesn't exist in our climate. Each plant pod produces approximately 5,000 seeds."

Patience is also the key with Asparagus retrofractus, which takes eight years to bear seeds. Not everyone wants the same type of seeds, either. Asparagus scandens, for which Carter Seeds is the world's largest producer, is more popular in Europe than in the United States.

The orange clivia, which line hundreds of feet of greenhouses, must be hand-pollinated. The small, nut-sized pods will be harvested as soon as they have dried, and will then be sent to the climate-controlled packaging room nearby.

Bins and pails filled with apple seeds, California wildflower mix, butterfly-like conifer seeds, and bird of paradise seeds (which closely resemble the bloom) all await shipping to various parts of the world.

Among the seeds waiting here are some that will require an extraordinary amount of patience, even by seed-business standards: it will take several thousand years for the Sequoia gigantea to reach maturity.

Reliable Seeds, Charles B. Ledgerwood, 3862 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad, 92008. 729-3282. Open daily except Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Ships by mail order. 1 ounce of California Wildflower seeds, approximately $3.40.

Carter Seeds, Tom Frick, 475 Mar Vista Drive, Vista 92083. 724-8832. Mainly wholesale, but will accommodate retail orders. Open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Ships by mail-order.

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