From backyard diggers to seed savers

Before moving to Sonoma County, my mother was prone to pulling out her phone at dinner parties to show off photos of her children. But after just three years here, my once pride-inducing image has been replaced by that of a melon ripening on the vine. It seems like just yesterday that she was packing up to move during a blizzard in downtown Denver. She’d lived there nearly all her life, more familiar with the fluorescents of a grocery store than with the scent of compost. Today she’s got dirt under her fingernails, organizes a monthly meet-up for backyard gardeners and yes, would love to show you a photo of the heirloom potatoes she dug up just yesterday.

Like her, but more than a century before, the famed horticulturist Luther Burbank also came west from colder climes to discover what he called “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.” But while Sonoma County does boast fertile soils and a mild climate suited to year-round growing, what truly makes this place fertile is a culture rooted in the agrarian ideals of living close to the land and growing healthy food. The result is a plethora of resources for gardeners of every kind.

From the Master Gardener program to the ubiquitous plant sales that appear each spring and autumn at local gems like Petaluma Bounty, Willowside School, and even the local jail, few people in this community are untouched by the green thumbs that abound here in the North Bay.

Directly following the economic crash of 2008, the Sonoma County Department of Health was facing yet another set of troubling numbers: rising rates of obesity, diabetes and a lack of access to healthy food, even here in this “chosen spot of all this earth.” Given the financial crunch, they were searching for low-cost and accessible solutions. Wendy Krupnik, a local food and farming advocate whose affiliations would exceed my word limit, together with her colleague Suzanne Doyle, jumped at the opportunity. The following year, iGrow Sonoma was born. This free website provides blogs, videos, timetables and links to all things garden-related. From thinning apples to growing peppers, feeding the soil to growing in cold weather, the iGrow website offers a variety of resources, all specifically catered to our own unique seasons.

To Wendy, gardening is much more than a hobby; it’s a matter of homegrown public health, security and resilience. “Gardening saves you money,” she says. “It’s good exercise and inspires you to take better care of yourself. The food tastes better. You connect with the seasons and can opt out of consumer culture. The human-plant relationship, it’s profound and ancient.”

Doug Gosling, of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, couldn’t agree more. While some consider gardening a solitary task, Doug believes it holds together communities. Each year, together with the West County Seed Exchange, Daily Acts and the California Native Plant Society, they host one of the liveliest gatherings around: a seed swap. Hundreds of people cram into the Grange Hall in Sebastopol, tables overflowing with seeds saved from local farms and gardens, all free for the taking. Doug arrives with a large jar of tiny amaranth seeds. He calculates that it contains nearly 1.9 million seeds, all from just a dozen plants. “Nature is more abundant than we can even imagine,” he says. “There really is plenty for everyone.”

Unlike packaged seeds, at the seed swap you’ll find specimens from local plants, sometimes collected over decades, specifically adapted to the local microclimates of Sonoma County. And last year, thanks in part to local gardening activists, California overcame a grave threat to this cultural treasure: prohibitive labeling, testing, and permitting requirements meant to regulate large-scale commercial seed enterprises that inadvertently forbid even community-scale seed exchanges. But with the passage of the new Seed Exchange Democracy Act, the state now exempts seed libraries and swaps like Doug’s. “That was made possible by the community building and education that results from our events,” he says.

Still, there’s much work to be done. While it was Luther Burbank’s plant-breeding genius that brought him fame, a hundred years later Doug worries about that legacy. “Seed saving, let alone natural plant breeding, is a dying art. We often hear about the extinction of wildlife, but we’re also losing the biodiversity of our farms and gardens, many unique varieties of fruits and vegetables lost all the time.”
The Bodega Red potato is one such variety. Thought lost decades ago, a surprising discovery of mysterious tubers led to the re-emergence of this heirloom, derived from an area once known as “The

Potato Capital of California.” Last fall, my mother—that city girl from snowy Colorado—proudly saved a few of her first season of Bodega Reds to plant in the spring. She’s still learning, but here in Sonoma County there’s no shortage of opportunities to dig in a little deeper.  SD