March is a two-faced, trickster month that will lure a gardener out to the vegetable patch with blue skies and temperatures touching 80 degrees, then the next day wash away all her efforts with a pounding rainstorm and a final season frost. Savvy East Bay gardeners anticipate this diversity of weather and soothe their yen to "get growin'" in March by starting their long-season summer seedlings indoors. Fortunately vegetable connoisseurs are blessed with multiple sources where they can find first-rate, organic seed for those exotic or plebian tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
Thrifty gardeners who are also concerned about the world’s growing reliance on F-1 hybrids (so called Frankenseeds) should head over to the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), operated by the Ecology Center in Berkeley.
BASIL is dedicated to conserving and preserving the genetic diversity of our planet's seed stock and operates a unique seed "library" where gardeners can "check-out" open-pollinated seeds for free. Your only obligation is to attempt to grow them into crops and then return some to the library at the end of the season. Browsing through the seed drawers is a fun way to spend a rainy March afternoon and an added benefit is that seeds acclimate to specific growing regions over time and each batch of returned seeds helps develop strains and varieties that are perfectly at home in our East Bay eco-climates! The Ecology Center is located at 2530 San Pablo Avenue.
Another great seed source is Common Ground Organic Garden Supply located in Palo Alto. Common Ground is a project of Ecology Action, the organization founded by John Jeavons, famous as the father of the Grow BiointensiveÒ sustainable growing method. Common Ground is fun and unique because you can either select seed packets from popular professional suppliers such as Renee’s Garden, Seeds of Change, and California Native Seeds; or you can purchase seed by weight from Common Ground’s own open stock. Shoppers can peruse the seeds stored in glass jars, then measure out amounts as small as a teaspoon. This lets gardeners experiment with different vegetable or varieties without having to buy an entire packet or encourages them to make up their own wildflower, herb or cover crop mixes. You can also get a nice selection of seed potato including Yukon Gold, Kennebec, Finns and a variety of fingerlings.
If you are in the mood for a springtime road trip consider a drive to Petaluma to visit the west coast outlet of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Also know as “The Seed Bank” because of its location inside the historic former Sonoma County Bank building, Baker Creek offers over 1,200 varieties of heirloom seeds and other gardening items. If you have trouble making up your mind then be forewarned- the Seed Bank has over 70 varieties of tomatoes alone and a gardener can spend several hours pouring over the packets dreaming about rainbow-hued tomatoes, beets, radish, corn, lettuce, beans and dozens of other fascinating varietals. Seed potatoes are limited to Yukon Gold, red, and German Butterballs but the butterballs look and sound delicious! If you can’t make the trip to Petaluma, Baker Creek has a mail order website and a catalog.
If Love Apples are your passion you can take another road trip to Wild Boar Farms in Suisun Valley. Wild Boar is a California Certified Organic Farmer (CCOF) that specializes in “very desirable, rare, and over the top tomato varieties”. You can choose seeds with wonderful names like Red Furry Boar, Trenton’s Tiger, Pineapple Pig, Haley’s Purple Comet, and Brad’s Black Heart. Also represented are dwarfs, patio types, determinates, and wildly sprawling indeterminates. The website also promises varieties that will produce well for climate challenged gardeners around the foggier parts of Oakland and Berkeley. If you don’t feel like driving over a bridge, Wild Boar plants are also available at Orchard Nursery & Florist in Lafayette and Alden Lane Nursery in Livermore.
Gardeners pressed for time may want to stop by the Bountiful Gardens website to drool and shop. Bountiful Gardens is John Jeavons’ experimental farm located in Ukiah, so it is not exactly a Bay Area source. But all seeds are grown in California and are incredibly reliable germinators. Besides individual vegetable and flower varieties, gardeners can also purchase fun seed collections that let them try new strains, seed mixes, mushrooms kits, inoculants, fertilizers and tools. There’s a wealth of information available on the site and their catalog makes cozy reading if March is blustering and huffing outside the window.
Time is running short to get those peppers started but it’s prime time for tomatoes and eggplants. Don’t constrain yourself to the offerings of the local nursery. Grow your own and thumb your nose at March while you wait for the real spring to begin.