Larner Seeds: Gardening with heart

David Briggs
Judith Lowry has guided a movement of native plant restoration at Larner Seeds, in Bolinas.  
02/26/2020

What role can the home gardener play in restoring the native California ecosystem?

The answer to that question is limitless for Judith Larner Lowry, who has grown native plants on an acre-and-a-half lot on the Bolinas Mesa for nearly four decades through her business, Larner Seeds. The garden boasts varieties she has collected locally and from around the state over the years, and supplies some of the seeds for the company—which, by mail and at a modest retail front, sells over 200 species of California native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees. 

Ms. Lowry describes her initial vision for the property in “Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home,” published in 1999. “I began to see the dim outlines of my home, nestled into the intricate earth, surrounded by those trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that at one time graced this land, and surrounded also by those birds, insects, rodents, and mammals that have slept in, eaten off, hidden in, bred in, and otherwise hung out in these plants for the past ten thousand years,” she wrote. 

“Home was becoming more particularly defined, more specific, more tied to the details of smell, color, and form, as we searched out the clues and looked at the pieces. The white-crowned sparrow, famous for its different dialects, has a clear, sweet whistle, called the Palomarin, or clear dialect, heard only in the area reaching from my town to a lake three miles away. Along our coast, the California poppy occurs in a lemon yellow rather than a crayon orange variety.

Ms. Lowry, who was raised in St. Louis, spent her college years studying cultural anthropology at Bennington College in Vermont and received a master’s in art education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, before heading west. 

In California, she encountered seed pioneers who would become mentors and inspire her to open her own business. For a decade beginning in the early ‘70s, she worked at Yerba Buena Nursery, then the largest native plant nursery in the state, in Half Moon Bay.

She began her own business while living in Palo Alto and moved it to Bolinas in 1984. Ms. Lowry said her aspirations may differ from most entrepreneurs: she always intended to stay small. “I was lucky to buy land when I did, which keeps the rent minimal. For me, it has been great to have a micro-business, because it could go any direction I wanted. Through all the years, I could follow my interests, and that was such a gift. As you build your whole life on a body of knowledge, why not have a business facilitate that, rather than academia,” she said.

The business continues to support her and her husband, Peter Smith, a retired computer systems manager who worked at Stanford University. Owning her business meant that she was there when her daughter, Molly Koehler, came home from school. Molly, who recently moved back to Marin, was once her bookkeeper, a role Ms. Lowry said she assumes her young grandsons—who have already started selling their own seed packets, wildflower combinations—will try on one day. She likes the flexibility and the freedom, though she said the work is fairly constant.

“The whole idea of being a seed person? That has always been like, ‘Yes!’ It just fits me,” she said, adding, “There’s an ease in the basic act of growing, harvesting, cleaning, packing up, and then sending seeds out to sell. It connects me. And the wild collection? It’s like receiving a gift. It’s an exchange you make: you expand the territory of the plant, which is what it wants.”

Ms. Lowry has five employees, whose work changes with the seasons. Many of their seeds are grown on the Bolinas property, though for some species, she contracts another grower to test for viability or to grow on a slightly larger scale. Ms. Lowry also owns 80 acres in Mendocino County, a mountainous swathe of land with grassy meadows she often visits alone to see what she can find. Foraging is a large part of the business.

Jeff Manson, who worked for Ms. Lowry for the better part of the last decade, said his home garden down the road is still producing meadowfoam, a local wildflower, and an edible green known as miner’s lettuce. Growing plants for seed by hand isn’t necessarily easy, he explained.

Miner’s lettuce sends its flower out on a long stalk, and the flowers bloom sequentially, so there’s never a moment when the whole stalk is abloom. Within a narrow window of a month or so, often when the stalk is starting to turn just a little bit red as it begins to die, Mr. Manson watches for the right time to collect each individual seed pod. He then puts them in trays covered in newspaper, each day opening the newspaper to toss the plant material around to prevent mold. For miner’s lettuce, the seeds dehisce: the pods pop open and release their seeds—you can hear the sound. Once that happens, the seeds have to be separated from the other material with a sieve.

“If we get 15 ounces of miner’s lettuce, that’s a massively successful harvest,” Mr. Manson said. The company is the only one that sells seed for the plant, reputed to be high in vitamins A and C. (During the Gold Rush, Indian tribes fed the leaves to miners with scurvy.)

Home gardeners, researchers and conservationists alike provide a solid market for Larner Seeds, which grows many varieties that otherwise would have to be foraged. Ms. Lowry also works as a consultant, helping customers design gardens and other larger projects.

In her books, Ms. Lowry talks about restoration. “In the field of restoration ecology, the term mitigation refers to the legal requirement to make reparation for harm done—in other words, for the developer who builds a shopping mall on a wetland or condominium where vernal pools once went through their seasonal changes to create equivalent wetlands or vernal pools everywhere,” she writes in “Gardening with a Wild Heart,” her first book.

“Although mitigation may be seen as representing a real shift in consciousness, questions of the possibility of such replacement of natural systems inevitably arise. Do we understand enough about natural systems to begin to recreate them, or to evaluate the mitigation effort once it has been made? In an ideal world, the restored wetland would be created first, before the building project was begun.”

She adds, “Backyards, where fewer economic motives usually prevail, offer direct opportunities to ally ourselves with the forces of restoration. Planting native penstemons instead of petunias won’t take food out of your mouth, but it may put it into some other creature’s, somebody you didn’t know but will be glad to meet. Grizzlies and wolves will not appear in your urban yard, but there’s a lot else that can happily inhabit the place where nature and culture meet.”

In addition to her full-length books that dive into Native history, botany, design and cookery, Ms. Lowry also has produced numerous short, self-published guides intended to be quick, more digestible reads: “Notes on Natural Design: Ideas for the California Backyard Restoration Gardener,” “Notes on Native Grasses,” and “The Real California Cuisine: Cooking from the Wild Food Garden,” among others.

Lillian Valeel, a poet, former literature professor and gardener who lives in the Central Valley, said Ms. Lowry’s books “provide daily inspiration.” She and Judith participated in writers’ retreats, meeting other female authors who helped pioneer thought around the importance of recovering Native American knowledge for the management of California’s natural resources. 

Ms. Valeel said she reads “Gardening with a Wild Heart” again and again. “It’s a solid source of knowledge and insight,” she said. “It’s lyrical. It’s beautifully written. I consider her the poet laureate of wildflowers and coastal flower seeds.”

She added, “Her work is undervalued. She’s a state treasure.”

Mr. Manson said Ms. Lowry watched the field of home gardening with natives go from a fringe concept to “more than mainstream.” Nevertheless, decades of experience can also lead to frustration, he said. “It’s great joy, but to have an understanding of the subtleties of the natural world and to see all the funny ways that we as humans interact with it—well, that’s a constant source of entertainment at its best, and frustration at its worst.” 

Ms. Lowry emphasized her impetus for writing was to address her customers’ basic questions, such as “Which comes first, the flowers or the seeds?” She describes what she calls “plant blindness,” or people seeing everything green as falling within one general category: plants.

For Mr. Manson, his time at the company taught him to think of the natural world in specific terms. “What does an early rain mean for the way our clarkias bloom at the beginning of summer, or a cold spring mean for the way the perennial shrubs bloom? When we are thinking about the big issues like climate change and extinction, I feel like the general public consciousness and the media looks at everything in terms of generalities. But the inspiring thing at Larner Seeds is that Judith encourages people, and her employees first among them, to look at what local changes look like for a very local ecosystem, immediately in the neighborhood.” 

“It’s the poet’s vision,” he said, “Judith does all the things—she’s a botanist, designer, gardener—all under the rubric of having a poetic vision about the land, specifically about our land here.” 

 

Larner Seeds, located at 235 Grove Road, is open to the public between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and between 12 and 4 pm. on Saturdays.