What did gardeners do before tomato plants came in 5-gallon plastic pots? Before six-packs of zucchini plants bloomed in profusion at local nurseries? Before seeds conveniently appeared in colorful packets on store racks and in catalogs?
Gardeners saved seeds from their plants and swapped with others in the community -- a tradition that is slowly being revived in Southern California and beyond.
"When you save seeds, you preserve the best of what you grow and improve upon it generation after generation," said Bill McDorman, president of Seeds Trust, an Arizona-based heirloom seed company and founder of the International Seed Saving Institute, www.seedsave.org, a nonprofit educational organization.
Heirloom seeds got their name for a reason, as families once passed them down like little treasures from one generation to the next, said Scott Kleinrock, coordinator of an urban agricultural center in development at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Whereas these seeds resulted in a variety of hearty, flavorful produce, today the agricultural industry more often values looks and longevity, the ability of produce to hold up during the 1,300-mile average commute to market.
"Flavor and diversity are not the aim of seeds produced today," McDorman said.
Better flavor, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, a strong connection to the food they have grown -- these are just some of the reasons why gardeners are saving and swapping seeds.
"A huge part of the experience is flavors and colors and stories," said Kleinrock, a member of the Claremont chapter of Food Not Lawns, which is taking part in an annual seed swapping event Jan. 31. "It's about more than seeds. It's about connections and stories. Last year someone from the Hopi Indian tribe brought seeds."
Kleinrock said novice gardeners who are intimidated by the concept can start with something easy.
"Lettuce and beans and peas are simple," he said. "With lettuce, I just let it go to seed and then scatter."
Kleinrock advised against trying to harvest seeds from commercially produced hybrids because the seeds won't consistently yield the same plant.
For those who have fallen into seed saving, the process spurs them to try unusual varieties of produce -- purple and yellow-podded peas, for example -- that can't be found easily in a store or a catalog.
"If you just look at the Burpee rack at the grocery store, you're never going to see these things," said Glendale resident Ellen Stavash, a member of the online group California Seed and Plant Exchange and a seed sharer for four years. "This is one way to preserve the varieties of vegetables that are disappearing."
Debbie Oisboid, a member of the same exchange, likes the economics of seed saving and sharing. A single seed potentially could produce thousands of offspring.
"And," the Chatsworth gardener said, "I get things that are new and exciting."
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Calls to action
Several local organizations are hosting programs timed with International Seed Swap Day of Action, a Jan. 31 event organized by Food Not Lawns co-founder Heather Flores. A sampling:
Claremont Food Not Lawns: Will swap and share seeds from 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Packing House, 540 W. 1st St., Claremont. Bring heirloom and home-harvested seeds to share. Those without seeds are also welcome. www.claremontfoodnotlawns.com.
Environmental Change-Makers: Will host a winter garden celebration with an 11 a.m. seedling class, noon potluck and 1 p.m. seed swap at the community garden at Holy Nativity Church, 6700 W. 83rd St., Los Angeles. Westchester-area community members with or without seeds may attend. www.envirochangemakers.org.
Freedom Gardens: Will host a seed sharing event, potluck and film screening of "Human Footprint" on Sunday. Event runs from 5 to 9 p.m. at 626 Cypress Ave., Pasadena. Free. Reservations required: (626) 844-4586 or freedomgardens.org (look for "No Cal & So Cal Meetups" box).
Santa Barbara: A community seed swap will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Alameda Park, 1400 Santa Barbara St. Event will include demonstrations, children's crafts, seed ball making and music. www.sbseeds.blogspot.com.
California Seed and Plant Exchange: Hosts online discussions and exchanges throughout the year. Members may also participate in a round-robin exchange involving more than 100 seed varieties harvested by participants. Information: groups.
-- Susan Carrier