Photography by Jen Britton
If you ask David King, garden master at the Learning Garden at Venice High, the same question, he’ll give you more information about seeds, seed-saving and food politics in five minutes than you can get from the news any day. This Kansas-native, country boy inspires excitement, outrage and occasional civil disobedience when he takes the stage to talk about seeds. In 2012, he founded the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA) to help spread the word about seed saving, and hopes to further the cause on a national level.
Heirloom: an open-pollinated seed that has been handed down from generation to generation, or as King puts it, “A seed that comes with a story.”
Hybrid or F1: a seed that is cross-bred from two different parent plants of the same species. The resulting seed doesn’t breed “true to type.” It reverts back to earlier genetics and is not reliable.
Genetically Engineered Seeds (GEs or GMOs): These, on the other hand, are modified through DNA splicing. “GMOs interrupt the legacy of seeds that have grown from history to today,” King says. “Non- GMO seeds are naturally adapted, and without them, we won’t have them to hand down to our children. It’s a disservice to future generations.”
Currently, GE seeds are only used commercially, and are not available to home gardeners. That’s about to change if the government approves the sale of GMO sweet corn for home growers. “That would be a quantum leap.” King adds, “People would have to buy new seed every year, but they run the risk of cross contamination with all their non-GMO crops. Corn is wind-pollinated, so the threat of cross contamination is very high. We just can’t allow that.”
King finds it difficult to talk about heirloom seeds without being political. Since the first days of the Land Grant University, established by Abraham Lincoln, our government has played a prominent role in agriculture. Every administration since has appointed former executives from biotechnology and other Big Ag influencers to run the Department of Agriculture. There appears to be no way to untangle the two.
So we take power back into our own hands by growing open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that can’t be patented, and we can save those seeds from year to year. The benefits are not just political; growing heirloom seed opens the door to a level of biodiversity that can boggle the mind. You walk into the grocery store and see one, maybe two types of cucumbers for sale. If instead you crack open an heirloom-seed catalog like from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, you’ll find over 35 varieties of cucumbers to grow.
King delved into seed saving and heirlooms early in life, with his grandfather being the one who taught him much of what he knows. He recalls rhubarb as being the first thing that turned green in spring in the Mid-West. “Grandpa had a huge plant and we’d make rhubarb pie as soon as we could,” he recalls. King claims that his own pie is the best in the county, though he hasn’t yet won official awards for it.
King continued on gardening organically when everyone else was laughing at him about it. It was part of his life until he was 17, yet eventually, as teenagers tend to do, he decided that it wasn’t cool anymore, and set off on an adventure playing guitar, bass, keyboard and mandolin. Years later, in a troubled, and lost state, in a suit with no umbrella, he found himself wandering through Ocean View Farms organic community garden in Mar Vista in the pouring rain. King pauses, visibly choked up as he tells the story: “It was a really significant experience that I can’t put into words. Just me and the garden and the rain.”
That was it. King was finally ready to return to his roots. His relationship with plants surged forward when he enrolled in UCLA’s horticulture and gardening program.
“Now I teach for them. That’s part of being at the Learning Garden every day. I need that kind of connection to plants and community to hold myself in an Earth orbit,” says King. It’s been just over a decade since his return, and King has culled his favorite varieties to grow in spring, including some easy-to-save seeds: King’s passion about seed saving infuses his work at the Learning Garden at Venice High School, and SLOLA, which is now over two years old—and with a lifetime membership fee of $10, it’s a bargain. Simply check out seeds, grow them, save the seeds and return them to the library. For those intimidated by the thought of having to return loaned seeds, SLOLA has a solution: $1, and the seeds are yours. “More than saving seeds, we’re growing seed-saving gardens.
We’re creating a level of self-sufficiency here that Los Angeles hasn’t known since the early 1900s,” King said. King believes that good food should not be out of reach for anybody, regardless of economic condition. He continued, “The most important work I’m doing is the Seed Library and saving seeds for the future. I’m very happy with the progress of the Seed Library, and to be associated with such fun people who have done such great work. It’s a real blessing.”
King is working on a book, Growing Food in Southern California: What to do and When to Do It. Support the Learning Garden at thelearninggarden.org, to keep David King working there for years to come.
SAVING YOUR SEEDS
Royalty Purple Pod is a favorite for its high yields. it turns green when cooked. To save seeds, let the plant dry out and when the pods shake like a rattle, they’re ready to harvest. Yellow Pencil Pods are perfect for pickling because, as King says, they’re straight and fit well in a jar without curling. romano beans are a great green bean that can be eaten fresh or saved for dry soup beans. scarlett runner beans grow to be over a foot long, and the flowers make a beautiful landscaping accent.
Tomatoes are easy to start from seed, and with over 400 heirloom varieties to choose from, you can get lost in the pages of seed catalogs trying to decide. King shared his favorite: san marzano italian paste tomatoes (for his Greek salad, along with armenian cucumbers). speaking of armenian cucumbers, King advises gardeners to save those seeds because they don’t cross easily with other varieties. “Other cucumbers are as bad as barflies,” he says with a smile.
If you planted salad greens in fall, this spring you’ll have lettuces bolting to seed, ready for saving. along with arugula and cilantro, lettuces are easy to grow and save. allow plants to form flowers and seed heads. Staple or tie a paper bag over the seed stalk and when the seed head is brittle, snap it off and shake the bag to extract seeds.