For gardeners throughout Northern California, a trip to the Petaluma Seed Bank can pay big dividends.
It’s not just the varieties – scores of tomatoes, dozens of melons, greens of every description – but the people and stories behind those heirloom vegetables, and much more.
“By growing heirlooms, you’re keeping tradition and genetics alive,” said Jere Gettle, the seed saver who started this heirloom empire. “You’re growing something that Thomas Jefferson or George Washington grew.”
In a marbled 90-year-old landmark bank building, the Seed Bank is the year-round embodiment of Gettle’s Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the much-loved Missouri-based purveyor of rare and unusual vegetable and flower varieties. In addition to selling seed, the company organizes the annual National Heirloom Exposition; this “world’s fair of pure food” draws more than 35,000 patrons each September to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
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This winter, Baker Creek’s massive 354-page Whole Seed Catalog celebrates its 20th anniversary with more than 1,850 selections, from 13 kinds of ancient Aztec amaranths to old-fashioned Canary Bird zinnias.
As Baker Creek’s only West Coast store, the Seed Bank has become a must-see destination for gardeners interested in heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers. (Note: The store is closed on Saturdays, a reflection of the owners’ Seventh Day Adventist beliefs.)
“January, February, March – that’s our biggest season,” said Ellyn Mavalwalla, the Seed Bank’s manager. “It gets crazy crowded. On Sundays, the line to the counter goes to the door. We’ll get a new shipment of seeds, and two to three days later some varieties will be gone.”
Among the best sellers: Paul Robeson tomato (“Everybody loves it,” Mavalwalla said) and lemon cucumber. The Comstock Sauce and Slice and Black Cherry tomatoes also are very popular.
“Tomatoes are king of the garden,” she said. “Tomatoes are the No. 1 reason people come through the door. We keep 190 to 215 heirloom varieties in stock. People have to sit down when they see them, they’re so overwhelmed.”
Other veggie varieties can become instant sensations. For example, Sunset magazine raved about Baker Creek’s Chinese red-meat radish, also known as the watermelon radish for its unique coloring (green on the outside, red inside with a white band in between).
“We couldn’t keep it in stock,” she said. “We were completely sold out of that radish seed by May.”
Some shoppers come in search of one hard-to-find variety such as the Gete-Okosomin or “800-year-old squash,” a Native American pumpkin cousin discovered at an archaeological site in Wisconsin. A couple of these 30-inch-long orange giants are on display at the Seed Bank.
According to lore around this squash, its ancient seeds were embedded in a clay ball believed to be eight centuries old, Mavalwalla explained. Other stories credit a squash found in a cave on American Indian land. Either way, that discovered squash was a hit at last fall’s Heirloom Expo and proceeds from the seeds’ 2017 sale will go toward supporting Native American garden groups.
One of many “new” heirlooms, the 800-year-old squash made its debut in the 2017 Whole Seed Catalog. Often handed down from one farmer or gardener to the next, an heirloom vegetable or flower is a variety that’s been grown generations without hybridization. Heirlooms often have assets such as flavor, size or scent that may not be found in more modern hybrids. That makes them highly valued by home gardeners.
While several retail nurseries carry some Baker Creek seeds, the Seed Bank features the full Whole Seed Catalog’s offerings. It’s one of only three fully stocked outlets nationwide; the others are at Gettle’s Missouri farm and Connecticut’s Comstock, Ferre & Co., the 250-year-old seed company Jere and wife Emilee Gettle purchased in 2010.
Why Petaluma? Northern California is a major market for heirloom seeds, Mavalwalla explained, and the former bank building “was too cool to pass up.” Once home to the Sonoma County Savings Bank, the Seed Bank opened in 2009. “The number of seeds we carry is mind-boggling,” she said.
“We rotate in new varieties every year,” said Jere Gettle in a phone interview. “I grew up reading seed catalogs. From an early age, I was fascinated by plants and growing things. In cold winter months, I loved reading seed catalogs and searching for unusual plants, thinking about spring and planting.”
That passion led Gettle, now 36, to create his own heirloom seed catalog at age 17.
“I started the catalog with 12 pages and 75 varieties, almost all from seed I had collected,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
His initial printing was 550 photocopies, mailed to Missouri gardeners. By 2007, the catalog had grown to a 70,000 nationwide circulation. This winter, Baker Creek printed 625,000 copies of its four-color paperback, with customers in more than 70 countries.
Packed with tales of discovery and mini-profiles of farmers, the catalog has grown to much more than seed listings.
“People are fascinated by the stories of their food, discovering the heritage and culture,” Gettle said. “They want to know where that seed comes from and who grew it. It’s a connection between people, not only with their food but their past.”
Although tomatoes also are king of the heirloom world, herbs – particularly basil, cilantro, parsley and lemongrass – are Baker Creek’s biggest sellers.
His personal favorites? Morning glories and melons (particularly Charentais), Gettle said. “I love big, bold, colorful plants.”
Dubbed “the Indiana Jones of seeds” by the New York Times magazine, Gettle named his company after the creek that ran through his family’s property in Missouri. The 17-acre farm still serves as a test garden for the catalog’s flowers and herbs. Vine crops including tomatoes, melons and squash are trialed in California. More than 160 farmers grow out the crops to provide the actual seed for customers.
In search of rarities, Gettle and his staff make about a dozen overseas treks annually. It takes about three years from discovery to introduction in the catalog and store.
“About half of the catalog’s varieties are endangered,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge. Every year, some varieties disappear. They’ll only stick around if somebody grows them.”
Where: Petaluma Seed Bank, 199 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Friday; closed Saturday.
Details: 707-773-1336, www.rareseeds.com
Special programs: The Seed Bank regularly hosts special events. At 2 p.m. Jan. 22, children’s author Sandy Metzger will read her latest book, “Three Sisters Garden,” in a free kid-friendly garden program.