Califonia Bountiful

Banking on heirloom seeds

July/Aug. 2010 California Country magazine

The Seed Bank in Petaluma has more than 1,400 heirloom fruit, vegetable and flower seed varieties available.

Betting on a bountiful harvest, home gardeners and local farmers are flocking to the Seed Bank in Petaluma. Store manager Paul Wallace shows off just one of the more than 1,400 heirloom fruit, vegetable and flower seed varieties available at the former depository.

When Paul Wallace opens the doors of the Seed Bank in downtown Petaluma, he welcomes a stream of customers who riffle seed packets like so much currency on payday. They sort through more than 1,400 varieties of heirloom vegetable, herb and flower seeds, checking with the store's staff about the best selections for their gardens as they go.

Wallace, who manages the new California outpost of Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, greets regulars by name in his soft Irish brogue. "There's definitely a need for this kind of store in the community," he said. "And we try to support the community, holding events and lectures, as well as participating in community activities."

The Seed Bank opened about a year ago in a 1920s Romanesque bank building with 30-foot ceilings, brass fixtures and enormous windows. There are rows and rows of seed racks containing packets of everything from six kinds of Asian beans to 150 squash varieties and more than 190 different tomato types.

The walls are hung with garden-inspired art from local schools, garden-related photos and handicrafts from area artisans. There are bins of heirloom potatoes for sale, along with local honey and lavender oils.

Home gardeners and farmers alike appreciate heirloom produce for its distinct flavors, colors and shapes.

"A huge share of our current California business is concentrated in a few counties surrounding Petaluma," said Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds owner Jere Gettle. "Not only are we able to serve those folks better from our new location, but we also expect to be a destination for many tourists from across the country."

While giving a tour of the expansive store, Wallace stopped to greet a family visiting from Colorado. Moving on, he advised a teacher whose class was planting a school garden. Then he consulted with a representative from the San Francisco office of the American Garden Conservancy, which has several garden-restoration projects under way in California, including one on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

All of these visitors, as well as chefs from as far away as France, have an interest in heirloom fruits and vegetables that trace their origins and flavors back to a time when foods reflected regional traits. Generally, heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties, meaning seeds from the plant can be saved and will produce the same variety year after year.

The Seed Bank opened about a year ago in a 1920s Romanesque bank building.

Hybrids, which are grown commercially by farmers, as well as in backyard gardens, are a cross between separate varieties, and the seeds produced are often sterile. Hybrids provide uniform quality and are more easily grown on a large scale.

Heirloom seeds, which by definition should be from varieties that are at least 50 years old, are increasingly being planted by California farmers from seeds propagated in large quantities for commercial production. These varieties are prized for their distinctive flavors, as well as unusual shapes and colors, and can be found more frequently at major supermarkets and local farmers markets.

"I grow about 40 different kinds of garlic," said Petaluma farmer Andrew Kurtek. "I used to sell them at farmers markets, but now I get my seeds here and then just bring the garlic back in to sell."

Kurtek lays his harvest of aromatic bulbs on a counter in the Seed Bank, where tellers used to handle cash, and before long his supply is snapped up.

For information on Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and the Seed Bank in Petaluma, visit For samples and further information, call 417-924-8917.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

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