West Coast seeds sells a million tiny ways to grow healthy solutions for the planet.
Atomic Red sounds more like a threat to civilization than a potential aid to food security. But this red-skinned, yellow-hearted carrot—along with its vegetable compatriots—could well save our dinner tables, according to Mary Ballon, founder of West Coast Seeds.
“It’s important for people to know how to grow food,” Ballon says in a phone interview, noting that “in the 1980s, people were writing that we were going to run out of oil to keep the [produce delivery] trucks running up and down the West Coast.” Today, with oil sometimes approaching US$100 per barrel and climate change affecting traditional growing regions like California, there’s all the more reason to take responsibility for what’s on our plates.
Marking its quarter-century this year, West Coast Seeds, a certified handler of organic seeds, sells both time-proven favourites like scarlet runner beans and heirloom varieties like the Rouge d’Hiver red-brown lettuce which, if gardeners didn’t keep them going, might otherwise become extinct.
The company’s genesis was Ballon’s interest in ecofriendliness inspired by magazines like Harrowsmith Country Life and Organic Gardening. Fruitless attempts at using supermarket seeds led her to Territorial Seed Company in Oregon with such flourishing results that she convinced the U.S. company to let her sell them in Canada.
She launched, and subsequently sold, a gardening store, packaging her first seeds in its back room, then gradually expanded operations, specializing in seeds that are good for the planet. “You don’t want seeds treated with a fungicide,” she says. “Fungi in the soil work in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant to make nutrients available. It’s so disconcerting to buy something in a fancy package and nothing comes up.” As she writes in her catalogue’s preface: “Gardeners and farmers are inherently optimists. We believe the future is abundant and that collectively we can grow solutions.”
While Ballon maintains that “time is better spent growing foods than fancy flowers”, she does have a soft spot for sunflowers because, she says, they’re so easy to grow and kids love them. Whether they’re bright yellow dwarfs or 10 feet tall, Ballon believes “you really get a bang for your buck.”
However, flowers only have value, she says, if they earn their keep. Sunflowers feed birds and people. Others nourish beneficial insects. “There are so many that the bees really depend on,” Ballon says, adding that if you get down on your hands and knees to look closely at your alyssum plants, you see “little teeny weeny bugs that lay their eggs in the bodies of aphids.”
The 90 densely packed pages of West Coast Seeds’ 2008 catalogue and gardening guide are strong on how-tos, besides listing 500-plus varieties, including over 50 new organic and heritage vegetables. My, they’re pretty: a yellow-headed Cheddar cauliflower, Purple Haze carrots, the Cimarron lettuce (a deep red romaine). Ballon praises tenderheart sui choi, which is half the size of the traditional Chinese cabbage that most households find too big. She likes wild arugula, too, even if it is slow to grow, and the sweetie early red cherry tomato.
Ballon has always believed in having a site where home gardeners can visit for inspiration. Her first demonstration plot was in Steveston before, needing more space, she bought property in Ladner and now supplies most organic farmers in B.C. “It was my hope we could bring out commercial growers,” she says. But in high season when her own farm was bursting with ripeness, her customers were just too busy. Since 2004, she has partnered with the Richmond Sharing Farm, which grows food for the Richmond Food Bank.
Ballon’s own home vegetable plot in Ladner covers 1,200 square feet. She has also converted an old truck body into an insulated shed, the crux, she feels, of feeding yourself. “In order to grow a big garden, you need to be prepared to store produce. One reason squash is so expensive in January [is that] you’re paying for the farmer’s storage facility.”
People could buy squash when it’s in season and cheap, or large sacks of onions. “It’s storage that’s truly critical to sustainability,” she says. “Otherwise we have to keep going back and forth to Safeway, and that’s wrong.”
Organic seeds from West Coast Seeds are available at garden centres and on-line at www.westcoastseeds.com/ .