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Celt Schira: Sharing seeds, heirloom style

May 14th, 2010 | Category: Community

by Brita Adkinson

As gardening in small spaces is becoming increasingly popular, local resident Celt Schira, who manages an electrical engineering company that includes focus on solar and wind energy technology, enjoys sharing her knowledge of gardening with friends and neighbors. For several years, Schira, who is dedicated to growing her own food and breeding vegetable and herb seeds, mentors entry-level gardeners and also gives away seed kits.
Last year, Schira gave away 35 seed kits. This year, with the help of 24 volunteers, the number rose to 45 kits. A kit contains seeds for growing lettuce, kale, tomatoes, cabbage, oats, beans, herbs and more, with the aim to provide seeds for a garden that can feed a family. “This year, each garden kit had 37 varieties of seeds,” Schira said.
In her garden, Schira grows heirloom seeds – seeds that are open-pollinated and were grown in an earlier era, often found in smaller gardens. Schira commented that seeds used for commercial, industrial growing are different from the seeds needed for “backyard gardening.”
“The varieties that do well for small scale gardeners have different characteristics from the varieties that are suited to large scale agriculture,” Schira said. “For example, a farmer wants a uniform field of broccoli that will all be ready at once. Then the broccoli is cut, shipped and the field plowed and something else is planted.” By contrast, the backyard gardener wants a good side-shoot production after the central head is cut, and wants to continue harvesting from the same plant for a long time.
Thus, having all the produce ready to harvest at the same time is not the goal of a family gardener. Over the years, Schira has carefully selected and grown the kind of varieties that allow fruit to gradually ripen. Schira began buying seeds from a company in North Carolina that obtains heirloom seeds originating from small-scale gardening in Europe. Schira also has bought some seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange, of Iowa, and from Fedco, in Maine.
According to Schira, the family gardening traditions in some European countries have blossomed for many generations, generating plants that are optimized for backyard gardening. In hard times, people thrived thanks to their container gardens and urban small-space gardens. Seeds from these origins are suitable for the same kind of gardening here, and the plants are suited to the Northwest climate. Plants for family gardening must not be fussy, said Schira – they must withstand a few days without watering and be accustomed to varying growing conditions.
In her own garden, Schira conducts trials and tests, to develop the best strains. For example, this spring she is growing 60 varieties of lettuce, 20 varieties of kale and more than 70 varieties of tomatoes. When asked how many different species of vegetables she is growing, she said she doesn’t know the exact number, but guessed it was probably around 300.
Schira’s kitchen and balcony now sport hundreds of seedlings – for example, around 900 tomato plants. “In 2006, I did a grow-out of 36 tomato varieties, to see which did best, in terms of tolerance to organic backyard gardening on the 49th parallel,” Schira mused, adding that many of these turned out well and were worth saving the seeds.
Schira’s earliest memories of gardens were as a six year-old, when her family spent half a year in the town of Fresnes in France. Back then, Fresnes had intensively cultivated mixed-use farms – “the three cows, two pigs, field of cabbages and orchard-in-the-back sort of farms that children imagine… with French old guys brewing Prune Ancienne – home brew plum spirits – in the back shed…” Schira reflected.
The family’s home was next to small terraced vegetable gardens climbing up the hillside. “I sat on the stone steps and looked at all this food,” Schira remembered.
Later on, as an electrical engineer, Schira spent 12 years in active duty at a U.S. Army base in Germany. Here, again, she lived in a village with tiny community gardens and abundant garden patches around homes. On her way to work, she would stop each day and check out the progress in the gardens.
Further, in the years 1987-1990, Schira’s army career took her to Seoul, Korea, where she found a culture of urban container gardening. “Wherever there was a patch with enough sun, they’d grow something there,” Schira said, adding she loved walking around the city looking at them. She remembered how Korean workers at a maintenance facility for large trucks had divided up the six feet wide strip of grass that lined the asphalt parking lot, for growing food. Each worker would spend 10 minutes at the end of each work day tending to their gardens, and harvest something to take home to their families. “Over there, they really know urban gardening,” Schira reflected.
Schira is currently assisting local school teachers with their projects showing 7th-graders how to grow food. While informally serving as a source for advice and starter kits, Schira hopes that a local seed bank can be established in Bellingham in the future. She actively supports The Center for Local Self-Reliance (CLSR) recently established at the Caretaker’s House & Garden at Fairhaven Park. Schira enjoys the growing interest in urban and backyard gardening, and seeing them blossom in local neighborhoods.
People who wish to participate in growing and exchanging local heirloom seeds, are welcome to contact Celt Schira at 756-8957 or schira@openaccess.org.

Brita Adkinson writes from Maple Falls.

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