It was one of the best tomatoes Jenn Irwin had ever tasted, and she knew immediately she wanted more of them. This variety, grown by a neighbor from saved seeds, was intensely tomatoey -- having a pronounced acidity with a touch of sweetness. It was distinctly more flavorful than any tomato Irwin had brought home from a store.

A resident of the fertile Santa Clara Valley, living in San Jose, Irwin quickly became a convert, not only to gardening but to seed saving. She is now among an increasing number of home gardeners who save seeds from their best plants to sow again next season, a tradition that had sharply declined after World War II -- until recently.

Master Gardener Hillie Salo says she has witnessed a Bay Area resurgence in seed saving over the past few years, which she describes as a natural outgrowth of the lively interest in locally sourced food as well as to the economic downturn.

Seed savers now have more than a dozen Bay Area locations at which to exchange seeds with like-minded gardeners. And several area garden retailers offer selections from Iowa's Seed Savers Exchange, a national members organization launched in 1975 to help ensure survival of rare plant species. Today, its collection includes some 12,000 varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables. Its membership has grown in the past five years from 7,000 to about 13,000, and 1,000 of the members are in California.


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Knowledgeable observers estimate that more than 150 seed libraries, as the exchanges are called, now operate throughout the United States, including our area.

In Richmond, gardeners can exchange locally produced heirloom seeds at the main public library. The practice started in May 2010. Mountain View Library and San Jose Museum of Art have opened seed libraries this year.

Since its April launch, the Mountain View Library has given away more than 300 packets. Librarian Emily Weaks says, "People who have advanced gardening skills can share their seeds, and those who want to learn can pick up a new skill."

The art museum's exchange, located in its cafe, sprang up because of a coming series of food-related art and community events, titled "Around the Table: food, creativity, community." They will span from the Sept. 6 opening of the installation "Jitish Kallat: Epilogue," and continue with a display of selected works by 29 other contemporary artists, beginning Nov. 19, and conclude with "Talk Around the Table," which runs Dec. 9 through April 20.

Why are today's gardeners drawn to seed-saving?

Some, like Irwin, want to perpetuate a favorite variety. That's particularly true if they worry that major seed producers won't make or keep it available, points out Grant Olson, education coordinator for Iowa's Seed Savers Exchange.

For some seed savers, there's a political component, too. The artists who created the seed library at the museum, for example, see seed sharing as no less than a survival tool, says Sherrill Ingalls, marketing director at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Santa Clara County Master Gardner Salo appreciates that point of view. "I think (seed saving) is really important," she says. It was something most gardeners did before the growth of monoculture -- focus on single crops or single types of vegetables. The seed-saving tradition started dying off when victory gardens were abandoned after World War II, she notes.

Today, large companies, rather than individual growers, produce and distribute the vast majority of seeds -- and that should matter to people who care about plant diversity and local foods. Salo adds, "It's great to have local control of our food, right down to our seeds."

Some growers also point out that locally produced seeds are naturally acclimatized to the area's growing conditions, since the plants already have grown for at least one season in the place where they will be planted again. And, over time, plant strains adjust even better to their environment.

The descendants of that original tomato from Irwin's neighbor are flourishing again this summer in her own garden, for the fifth year. She says, "We always hear how hard gardening is, but really it's easy, easy, easy" -- assuming you have the soil and growing conditions that suit the plant.

Since 2008, her reasons for saving seeds have broadened. Her two daughters devour cherry tomatoes to the tune of nearly a pint a day in summer. She likes knowing where what they eat comes from. And she finds growing her own favorites year to year is both tastier and cheaper than buying them, she says.

There are lots of ways for novices to try out seed-saving, whatever degree of curiosity or commitment they may have. Salo encourages people to attend Master Gardener classes on the subject, offered throughout our area, and to experiment in their own garden.

One experiment takes hardly any effort: It's to pay attention to volunteer plants that pop up without help. If cilantro or tomatoes have reseeded themselves, Salo suggests letting them grow to see how well they produce and then decide whether the seeds should be saved for future use. They may be hardy varieties worth keeping, since they managed to propagate themselves in the location.

Olson points out volunteer plants reseed themselves and come to germination at the right time for optimum growth, rather than when the gardener might plant them, which may not be the best moment.

Irwin has allowed a volunteer tomato to grow in her front yard. It's now producing fruit. Salo has embraced bean plants that sprouted without any effort on her part from last year's seeds.

Advanced growers may decide to pluck seeds from species that are not likely to cross-pollinate, including tomatoes, peas and beans. More complex plants, including squash, may need to be spaced at particular distances from other similar type plants to ensure natural pollination, or pollinated with help from the gardener.

Those who want to share seeds through a library or exchange should take precautions to prevent cross pollination, so the seeds they share are likely to produce the expected varieties.

As for Irwin, in light of her easy transition from tomato lover to heirloom-plant gardener, she laughs off any nervousness people might feel about the process.

"These are plants -- they want to grow," she says.

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Some area seed libraries

Alameda Free Library, 1550 Oak St., Alameda
Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, 2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
Mountain View Library, 585 Franklin St. Mountain View
Seedfolks at César E. Chávez Library, 3301 East 12th St., Oakland
San Francisco Public Library, Portrero Hill Branch, 1616 20th St.
San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St.
UCSC Demeter Seed Saving Library, Oakes 307, UC Santa Cruz campus

Resources

  • Offering area classes on seed-saving, usually at no charge: Master Gardener programs in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties
  • Hosting regular seed-saver webinars: www.seedsaversexchange.org
  • Retailers where seed packets from Seed Saves Exchange are available: www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/Seed-Rack-Locations_4/