Seeding the Earth

Plan to meet some new seeds at the Ecology Center on March 4 at 7 PM when BASIL—the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library—throws its annual seed-swap party. The swap meet, with food and music, is a festive highlight of BASIL’s work.

As large agricultural conglomerates consolidate and concentrate on fewer and fewer seed varieties, mostly those favored by commercial growers and with the broadest marketing appeal, BASIL’s efforts are becoming more urgent. Large agribusinesses preserve the qualities that large produce growers prize, like shelf appeal, surface good appearance, and sturdiness for shipping; more subtle qualities like flavor are apt to take second place.

Just as important, a variety that has a superior ability to thrive in a particular place gets lost when only seeds for plants with nationwide appeal are left in the market. Just as indigenous races of cattle and fowl, fruits and vegetables disappear, so do the more particular varieties, named or not, that evolve in gardens. As professional plant breeders give evolution a kickstart by selecting for new colors or size or growth habits, amateur gardeners can select for local suitability by saving the seeds of their healthiest, most fruitful, or tastiest plants.

BASIL is inspired by such organizations as Native Seeds/SEARCH in Arizona and Seed Savers Exchange, headquartered in Iowa. Such groups got started by people who noticed that unique varieties of corn, chili peppers, beans, or other garden plants were disappearing as gardeners who’d grown them year after year died or lost their gardens, and as buying rather than saving (or swapping!) seeds became the normal thing to do. Doubtless there are unnamed and mostly unnoticed heirlooms in Bay Area gardens: some lettuces that hang tough all winter and don’t bolt in May; a fava that produces larger, sweeter beans than most; maybe even a basil with different flavor overtones or that thrives in the fog. BASIL is a way to discover and spread these treasures.

BASIL started as just a few people’s seed collections, coordinator Terri Compost says. Sascha DuBrul officially founded the Ecology Center project in 2000. Aside from perpetuating locally adapted and interesting plant varieties, the project concentrates on open-pollinated seeds that will breed true, unlike commercial hybrids that must be bought every year from seed companies.

BASIL has definite goals for the coming year. “We’re applying for a grant to ‘spiffy up’ the library, pay a seed librarian, and computerize our records. With that, we can track what does well here, and the histories of seeds,” says Compost. “We also intend to connect more with school gardens and community gardens.”

She passed along a couple of seed-saving secrets: for one, that it’s easiest to start with plants like lettuce, beans, and tomatoes that don’t readily swap pollen with the neighbors’ gardens, resulting in hybrid fruit and seeds. Another, and fairly counterintuitive tip, is that tomato seeds keep best if you put them, encased in their goop, on a shelf or on top of a refrigerator for a few weeks. Mold will form, which then can be rinsed away before drying and storing the seeds. The mold seems to reduce disease and aid germination.

Compost says the “library” of seeds— a bookcase full of seeds, carefully labeled and preserved in re-used (of course!) jars—kept at the Ecology Center provides “the same exchange we do at the swap meet, but spread out over time.”

The swap is a chance to come in and meet the people and the seeds, trade gardening hints and seed-preserving techniques, to find out what classes BASIL plans in both, and have a good time.

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