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Saving seeds for a harvest that never ends

December 15, 2010 |  6:30 am

Community Gardens dispatch No. 12: Altadena

Even though it's almost Christmas, Marie Yeseta is still harvesting tomatoes at her plot in Altadena Community Garden. One vibrant Italian heirloom — Costoluto Genovese, an acidic late-bloomer that is good for sauces and canning — has produced about 200 tomatoes thus far, she says.

Altadena-portrait And because Yeseta is an avid seed saver, that's one tomato whose seed she will be keeping, stored someplace dry, cool and dark — no hot garages or dank shelves under sinks. It will go into a dated, annotated envelope, which then goes into a tin labeled by season.

Saving seeds is a natural extension of gardening, Yeseta says, and the best way to educate your taste buds and discover the world beyond Early Girl tomatoes and head lettuce. Best of all, it costs almost nothing to continue a particular flavor in your garden.

"I spent $3.50 for a package of squash seeds, and I'll get maybe 10 squash, and each will have more than 50 seeds," she says. She just needs to rinse them clean of fibers and lay them out in a single layer on a screen or plate to dry thoroughly for about a month. "I'll never have to buy those seeds again."

Yeseta has taught classes in seed saving at the Altadena garden. Letting plants go to flower is one essential step, especially for lettuces. Shake off the flower head into a paper bag and let the seeds dry for about two weeks, then replant if you want.

A few plots away, Margaret Jones is harvesting her Christmas beans, heirloom limas with a splash of red on the pale skin. She saves her seeds too, particularly the ones that show the most color. Before she began growing limas, she never knew she could eat them fresh, when their buttery, chestnut-like flavor is best. Now the only ones she saves are for seed, giving them away to other gardeners before the bugs get to them.

Altadena-pumpkin-squash Most of the 64 plots here are 20 by 30 feet, and four are accessible to the disabled. The garden dates to the mid-1970s, when locals began gardening informally on the site of an abandoned military academy. With city support, the garden was incorporated into the design of adjacent Loma Alta Park, providing the community garden with bathrooms, a patio deck, fences, a tool shed and parking.  In addition to the government support (including deliveries of compost), a reliable marine layer helps. Backed up against the San Gabriel Mountains, the garden has a microclimate that allows for Jones’ Christmas beans, planted in March, to still be producing at Christmas.

"My favorite planting time is the winter," Yeseta says. "Especially sorrel. It's a great thing to grow because you can cut it and three weeks later it comes up again. It's wonderful for soups and stews."

-- Jeff Spurrier

Spurrier's dispatches from community gardens are posted every Wednesday.

Photo, top: Margaret Jones opens a pod of her Christmas beans, an heirloom lima that can be eaten fresh or used as seed to grow more plants. Credit: Ann Summa

Photo, second from top: Marie Yeseta at Altadena Community Garden. Credit: Ann Summa

Photo, second from bottom: Yeseta saves her seeds in carefully labeled envelopes. Credit: Ann Summa

Photo, bottom: Jones inspects blooms with the San Gabriel Mountains as her backdrop. Credit: Ann Summa


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