Story and photos
By Jane Handel
Over the years, my garden has seen the proliferation of numerous species of volunteer plants. Some seeds might come from far away, borne by birds or floating in on a breeze to take root wherever an opportunity presents itself. Others originate from my own plants or trees—a plethora of acorns plunge from my oak tree each spring and quickly sprout.
In some instances, the parent progenitors are down the street—Trees of Heaven and Mexican fan palms, in particular, that sprout everywhere like weeds and require a vigilant removal lest they send down long, stubborn taproots. If left to their own devices, which I see happening all around my neighborhood, these latter fast-growing invasive trees quickly take over.
I feel some guilt when pulling up the baby oaks because so many of these magnificent trees have been lost to development and even the 300-year-old California live oak that I consider to be the soul of my little quarter-acre property has been badly scarred by previous misguided residents and may not be long for this world despite my best efforts to save it.
In my garden’s beginning stages, when there was little more than bare dirt and weeds, I was desperate to grow just about anything. So I dug up a few of the larger volunteer palms, grouped them together and created a palm garden. After 10 years, they are now at least 30 feet tall. I love them (as do the squirrels and blue jays), but no longer save the countless volunteers. I have opted to grow fruit-bearing trees instead.
Every year, usually in the early springtime, I mix compost from my compost bin into the dirt of my vegetable garden. Since many vegetable and fruit seeds take a long time to compost, some end up in the mix and take root. I’m always fascinated by what might appear. Often it’s tomato plants, because tomato seeds are notorious for taking forever to compost. Sometimes it’s a random melon. This year, I had several volunteer tomato plants that have borne lots of fruit, a couple of tomatillo plants, a melon which is flowering but not developing any fruit so far, some leeks and another plant that has taken over a huge area and is winding its way down the garden paths. Each morning it appears to have nearly doubled in size and soon I fear one of its tendrils will creep through my bedroom window at night and wind around my soul as I sleep. It reminds me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I feel a peculiar mixture of awe and horror when I look at it. But aside from its prolific and awe-inspiring attributes, the story of this plant is more than the sum of its parts: The seed for this magnificent volunteer plant found its way from my compost bin to an unplanted area under my blood orange tree. I first noticed it growing in the spring, and left the baby plant alone out of curiosity—just to see what it would become. I could tell early on by the shape of the leaves that it was some kind of squash but wasn’t sure what kind. When it produced its first baby, I did not recognize it immediately. It was clearly related to a zucchini but had a different shape and color and a rich nutty flavor. As soon as there were enough to share, I took some as a little hostess gift to our friends Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian in Santa Barbara. Tracey knew immediately where the squash originated: their garden at their former home in Santa Fe! She had grown some there the previous year and brought them to me as a hostess gift.
I loved that this squash went full circle between us but that’s not where the story ends. Tracey then told me that she had originally gotten seeds for the squash from Dianne Langeland, the publisher of Edible Cape Cod.* Dianne had procured the seeds while on a trip to Italy and sent them to Tracey. So the original squash seeds from Italy traveled to Cape Cod, then some went on to Santa Fe, where they begat some squash that subsequently provided us with several tasty meals in Ojai, the remnants of which landed in my compost bin. One of the original seeds’ offspring then found a home under my orange tree, and its progeny found their way back to Tracey in Santa Barbara. And since I’ve been disseminating this squash like crazy all summer long (one family can only eat so much), who knows where it might end up next?
I’ve been trying to find out exactly what kind of squash it is. One person simply called it “Italian” squash; another said it looked like “Persian” squash; and another friend, who is Turkish, said immediately, “Oh, that looks like squash from home.” Of course I also consulted my friend Google, who provided countless images of beautiful squashes and, indeed, one variety looked very similar to the one now taking over my garden. It was called Mediterranean Summer squash; or Middle Eastern squash. So it seems that all of the previous attempts to ID its origins by my well-traveled friends were pretty accurate So far, I haven’t seen it in any market here, but I intend to save some of its seeds (deliberately this time, not accidentally) and to share them with a local farmer, so that could change.
The story of this seed reinforces my zealous belief in the age-old practice of seed saving. The idea that hybrid seeds now exist that are programmed to not reproduce beyond one season is, in my mind, one of modern science’s most heinous inventions. Many farmers around the world are being coerced into using these genetically modified seeds, which are usually pre-treated with copious amounts of pesticides. The dissemination of these seeds in a one-size-fits-all effort is mutating agriculture on a massive scale and this is having a profound impact not only on the lives and livelihoods of farmers everywhere, but on the ecosystem.
But many farmers around the world are defying the powers that be—Monsanto, Syngenta, et al—and returning to the tried and true traditions of saving seeds that are suited to their unique growing environments and have proven to be hardy and prolific—and are sharing them with other farmers, just as they have done for millennia. In Nepal, for instance, women farmers are discarding hybrid seed imports, which might produce good crops the first year but nothing the next, and have created their own co-op seed banks for local varieties that are hardier and better suited to their specific climate. The seeds also promote biodiversity, which contributes to soil fertility and helps the environment in multiple ways.
This effort is just one of many spearheaded by farmers everywhere who have become disillusioned with the false promises used to promote GMO seeds. New seed banks and seed libraries are being built or reinvigorated around the world—from Norway to Russia to the UK to Nepal. In the United States there are multiple seed-saving efforts both small and large: The Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York is one for-profit venture designed to encourage seed saving, biodiversity and the stories that go with both. The library now has several hundred varieties of seeds grown by the founders and by local farmers. On a much larger scale, there is the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, which has 25,000 varieties of heirloom seeds. And, here in Ojai, farmers Quin Aaron Shakra and Justin Huhn of Mano Farm are starting their own organic seed company.
Much of the political discourse on seed saving is really about food sovereignty and this has become an increasingly thorny and volatile topic. Dominique Guillet, of Association Kokopelli, a nonprofit French group that seeks to safeguard endangered seed strains, promote seed consciousness and the sharing of seeds, sums up, very succinctly, what this issue is all about: “Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain. He who controls the seeds controls the food supply, and thus controls the people.”
The joys of sharing the bounty from one’s own garden can’t be overstated. And I imagine that when a farmer grows a particularly fabulous crop of corn or beans or tomatoes and proudly shares some of those seeds with his or her neighbor, that exchange resonates in far-reaching ways. When my neighbor brings me a bag of avocados or tomatoes and I, in turn, share apricots or tangerines (or, this year, squash!), a lasting bond is formed between us.
But the story of my extraordinary squash plant and its trajectory from Italy to Cape Cod to Santa Fe to Ojai is just one example of how seeds and the sharing of food create community. There are countless others and every gardener, farmer and cook has one to tell. Sterile seeds that are illegal to share are the means to one end only: big profits in the pockets of a few. The monocrops that are an integral part of this insidious scheme imperil biodiversity, and they have no stories to tell. They don’t engender community. And we can be sure they don’t provide good food for our bellies, much less for our souls. *Edible Cape Cod was the first member of Edible Communities following Edible Ojai and its publishers, Doug and Dianne Langeland, have a special place in all of our hearts.
Jane Handel wears many hats, not least of which are those of editor and co-publisher of Edible Ojai & Ventura County. But her current favorite hat, and the one she least expected she would ever don, is that of soccer mom.