The second in a series of four lessons gleaned from the 34th annual EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove
January 28, 2014 – On Thursday night at last week’s EcoFarm Conference, it was hard to choose what to do. Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, where I’m a designer, was holding the Landscapers Unite! Mixer. There was a film called Standing Silent Nation, about a Lakota family’s efforts on the Pine Ridge Reservation to grow industrial hemp, and raise themselves out of poverty, in the face of raids by the FDA. There was also an award winning film called Gasland II about fracking on farms. And a talent show.
But what I couldn’t resist was the seed swap.
The swaps at Eco-Farm, sponsored by the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, are the best. At a seed swap like this, you bring seeds to share and take home: rare, heirloom, off-the-beaten-path, and the basics. This year’s event was attended by about 200 people.
Let’s just say I got a real good cache.
My two prized finds were both rare fava beans. Let’s back up a minute: This is a plant that, as permaculturalists say, “stacks functions.” They are delicious. You can eat the bean or the plant’s tender tops. They are expensive and hard to find at the store, but cheap and easy to grow. They fix nitrogen in the soil and improve it. Bees and ladybugs like them. Unbelievably, they are also a beautiful, fragrant ornamental.
The first find came from Wallace Condon, a retired heirloom potato farmer from Lodi, who brought the largest fava beans I have ever seen, about an inch long or longer. Condon, who has been a member of California Certified Organic Farmers, Seed Savers Exchange, Land Institute and the Ecology Action, says he got this variety years ago from a friend who had a neighbor who was a farmer from Greece, and that these are a Greek variety. Probably.
[Sidenote: Wallace said he prepares favas like edamame. I have my own tip: favas make a healthy treat for dogs, many of whom love favas boiled in water with sea salt.]
The second came from OAEC. They call it hergonas or Peruvian fava. It doesn’t look like any fava bean I’ve ever seen; it has circles like a tabby cat. It’s mysterious: when you Google it, there’s almost no information. Although South Asians were harvesting a wild, tiny native fava from about 8,000 BC, it’s said that folks in Peru have been eating favas for 6,000 years. Maybe their ancestors brought them over from Siberia across the Berring Straight? I scratch my head. Anyway, I’m fortunate. I never knew this bean existed.
Now, saving seeds takes organization. Although I am a trained horticulturalist, intuition is what drives me. I don’t keep notes in a gardening journal. When I’m outside I have clippers or a trowel in hand, not a pen and envelope. For example, the biodynamic farmers, who create such beautiful wines and produce, are highly organized, planting by the moon, preparing special herbal concoctions for their plants, noting everything for their archives. I don’t know how they do it. I’m in awe.
Me, I throw wildflower seeds in a bucket—maybe borage or calendula or catnip, sunflowers or gilia, love-in-a-mist, elegant tarweed, marigold, chia. Months later I’ll notice the bucket behind a tree, and toss the seeds about. But they’re all mixed up. You can’t go to a seed swap with these, it’s too messy!
But I may be redeemed. My rare favas have inspired me. I want to see the plants they grow into. They’re different as seeds; they’ll have unique qualities as mature plants, and as food. I want them to proliferate and prevail, because they’re neat, weird, different, at least to me. And they’re fun and easy to harvest.
But this year the biggest gift is that I’ve found my first seed saving niche, and I feel confident that next year I will reproduce my rare favas and bring them as gifts for others.
A seed swap is part of what’s called a “gift economy,” and I’ve been finding myself more and more in the middle of it. The gift economy is hyper-local. It’s when some of your groceries come from friends. You know who made the apple sauce and the person who grew the apples. Someone else gives you a jar of pure raw delicious honey from their backyard bees. Someone else made an herbal balm. Another friend makes a memorable hot sauce from his habanera crop.
When you look at your pantry shelves, you think of friends.
Another gift. A generous farmer from Slide Ranch in West Marin, whose name I did not get, gave me a pound each of some beautiful heirloom beans called Jacob’s Cattle and Indian Woman. He gave me enough to cook dinner with, not just a few seeds to grow. These cost a lot at the farmer’s market, when you can get them.
Now it’s twilight, and the seeds are planted. It’s time to go inside and cook up those Indian Woman beans, which I will share with my partner’s daughter, who is pregnant and eats a lot. Not usually, but right now.
What I Took Home Besides Inspiration from the Eco-Farm Seed Swap
Alan Chadwick sweet pea
Alan Chadwick Swiss chard and ford hook giant white chard
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ Japanese Minowase Daikon
Devil’s Ear Lettuce
Favas: Red, Greek(?), and Hergonas, or Peruvian
High Mowing Seeds’ Bull’s blood beets
High Mowing Seeds’ Watermelon Radish
Hopi Black Dye sunflower
Magenta Lambs’ Quarters
Mixed Indian corn seeds
OAEC sunflower mix
Red beet heirloom mix
Sustainable Seed Company’s Contender Bean, Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean, Blue Lake Bean, and Mammoth Melting Pea
Jillian Laurel Steinberger designs softscape landscapes with natural and upcycled materials. She loves combining edible plants with California natives to boost pollination and create sublime and wondrous beauty. She works for Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business in Santa Cruz for 25 years, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. Feel free to contact her at jillian at terranovalandscaping.com.