Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Brijette Peña: The Seed Starter

Tucked away in a hillside community--an extension of City Heights perched over the 94 freeway--is one of San Diego's more unusual businesses: a seed company. On a sprawling acre, replete with a couple of large metal storage sheds, and a chicken coop with seven busy hens, Brijette Peña trials seed production, currently growing aisles of red cabbage, carrots, green comet broccoli, fava beans, peas, nasturtiums, graffiti cabbage, and banquet dill.

San Diego Seed Company sustainably produces local heirloom seeds (non-hybrid and non-GMO) based on what she grows and what her contract growers produce. The seeds--vegetable, herb, and companion flowers--can be purchased online or at nurseries including Grangetto's, Walter Andersen, Mission Hills, and City Farmers.

"I'm trying to make this a regionally specific seed company," Peña explained. To that end she has been collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance and local farmers. Large wholesale growers may offer seeds for plants we know and grow in Southern California but the varieties may not be right for our climate.

And, Peña claims, they don't test the seeds they way she does. It can take her two years to produce an envelope filled with seeds for a new product. First she starts and grows them--what she calls trialing to evaluate their phenotypes, or characteristics. The plants are left to flower, the seeds are collected and dried, their germination is tested, and then comes the process of preparing them for packaging.

In an ancient clipper she found in Kansas and one considerably newer, Peña runs seeds through to clean them and separate them from debris. A fractionating aspirator, powered by a shop vac, separates the good seeds from those without embryos that won't produce. Ever buy and sow seeds only to have little success? Non-productive seeds may be the culprit. Not to mention seeds that just weren't meant to grow in our climate. At $3.50 a packet, San Diego Seed Company seeds are pricier than the seed packets you'd find at the box stores, but Peña says her process and attention to detail, will offer a better yield for Southern California gardens.

While the business is not yet certified organic, which is very expensive, Peña follows organic practices. It's at the heart of her lifelong interest in agriculture--a gimme given that she's originally from Kansas, having moved to San Diego several years ago when she married her San Diego-native husband Roger.

"I've always been into farming," she said. "In Kansas agriculture is king. San Diego is a great environment for growing, but I found there were no resources for local seeds, particularly varieties for small spaces. So I decided to start this business. Gardening with seeds means you can get varieties you can't always find in nurseries. And it's more economical than buying plants."

Understanding that seed starting can be daunting for novices, Peña has resources on her website as well as YouTube videos.

But she also gave me some tips to pass along.

1. Use good seed starting soil. It may also be called propagation mix and can be found at nurseries. The benefits, said Peña, are that the soil is sterile and is light, so it holds moisture well.

2. Keep the soil moist so they can germinate.

3. The depth you plant your seed is important. It should be three times the width of the seed. San Diego Seed Company packets will also list the depth so you don't have to figure it out. Peña uses 6-packs commonly found in nurseries to plant seeds unless they are to be directly sowed (such as root vegetables).

4. Light is very important as well. How much will depend on the seeds but, said Peña, the general rule of thumb is full sun.

5. Fertilizing comes when your little seedlings get their first set of true leaves. Peña recommends fish emulsion because the stinky liquid really gets into the soil. Once the seedlings get bigger, then it's time to transplant. To get them out of their little containers try a gentle tug.

Finally, Peña encourages home gardeners to save their seeds. "We produce heirloom seeds because we want people to save seeds and be part of the food supply," she says. "It's only going to get hotter and dryer in San Diego so we need to have seeds that can adapt.

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