Let’s Talk Seeds
Meet Quin Shakra, owner and founder of Plant Good Seed Co. He shared with us some of his journey to finding his work, his perspectives, and his recommendations on growing.
What inspired you to start collecting seeds?
I try and understand life cycles – birth, death, and reproduction. Early in the life of the company we took a trip up to Southern Oregon to visit some seed farms. I thought of myself as knowledgable about plants at the time, but as we toured the farm I was confronted by a number of common garden plants that were well into their reproductive phase and completely unrecognizable to me. Parsnips, Leeks, and Radishes were a few of those crops. I recognized there was a huge part of plant life I knew nothing about, and wanted to close that knowledge gap. That was the “ah ha” moment – what captivated me, and got me inspired about this work.
Can you walk us through the process of harvesting seeds?
It’s a pretty diverse process, not only because of the sheer breadth of crops I work with, but also because I’ve always worked with land parcels that are pretty small. In the 15 or so years I’ve been involved in agriculture, about 2 acres is the most land I’ve ever managed, so my equipment is pretty simple. I have a lot of buckets, some painters canvases, a few pairs of pruners and scissors. I also use mesh painters bags for capturing seed that would otherwise be chomped by birds or simply fall to the ground.
I harvest at near peak maturity of the plant life, then stage nearly dry plant material on painters canvases to complete the drying. From there, I stomp or agitate the material to break it down for more precise cleaning. This final cleaning involves box fans and a set of screens with different diameters of mesh – to help winnow away chaff from seed. Anything I can’t get clean with these method, I’ve been sending to a friend to finish for me.
Someone who produces these crops on a larger scale might harvest using a different technique and set of equipment. I’m starting to do things differently with larger harvests – sparing myself the work and sending partially clean seed material to professionals in Central California for finishing.
What can you tell us about seeds that we might not know?
A recent crop I’ve been working is Wild Dagga, or Lion’s Tail (Leonotis leonurus). This is a perennial that is found in a lot of gardens around Southern California. It’s not native to this area, but it works really well in this climate as it’s drought tolerant and isn’t picky about soil fertility – not to mention extremely showy when in flower. I’ve had plants everywhere I’ve lived, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started looking at spent flowering stalks and got wondering if they might hold something viable in terms of seed. Turns out – and I was also clued into this by the seed company illustrator Goda, who sent me some seeds she gathered while traveling abroad – it’s pretty easy to start from seed.
There are plants like this you’d figure would be really difficult to produce seed because they aren’t something commonly found. My was, that’s why I mostly ever found seedlings of the plants. Many times over the life of the company, I’ve found this isn’t the case at all. Rhubarb is another example of a plant like this. Now both are really popular in our seed catalog. I like making discoveries like this.
What is your favorite part of collecting seeds?
It hones my observational techniques; it essentially guides how I view the world and its surroundings. In the beginning I got really overwhelmed, wondering where the seed was, and how I was ever going to get something harvested and clean enough to be recognizable and acceptable to customers. Over time – through repetition, mistakes, and just plain grinding (pun intended) through challenges, the seed stage of the plant has become a lens that I view the world through.
How has gardening shaped your life?
This is a total cliche worth repeating: if you love what you do for work, it doesn’t feel like work at all. I love what I do. I feel joy in this process every day.
What types of plants do you think are important for us to grow?
My first suggestion would be focus on crops that you personally are drawn to, regardless of practicality. Maybe try a broad array of things when you are getting started, and then narrow things down to what you feel truly passionate about. When we started the seed company, we did 100 percent of our own production, in addition to growing produce for ourselves and our Community Supported Agriculture members. We don’t have that farm any more, and my focus has narrowed considerably.
Second suggestion: find a crop to work with that might not be so easy to find in terms of quality and quantity, and work with that. That will inevitably be something novel.
I started seed saving by working with a lot of vegetables. Now my seed crop production focuses almost exclusively on California native plants and other drought tolerant hardy perennials.
Third suggestion: go with what the environment allows you to do. A big reason why I work with these hardy crops is because where I live doesn’t offer me a lot of other choices! The soil is very rocky, ground squirrels are on anything succulent and tasty, so that has limited me a lot. Turns out limitations can be a good thing, because a lot of the crops that can be grown here are not so easy to find as seed in the larger marketplace.