The Radical Acts of Growing Diversity and Saving Seeds: An Interview with Doug Gosling


Doug Gosling, the Director of The Mother Garden Biodiversity Program at The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC), is a master seed saver and biodiversity steward. He also manages the gardens at Food for Thought, the Sonoma County AIDS Food Bank, and is Chair of the Food Bank’s Project Africa, a program that supports AIDS relief work in Africa. Doug was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director.

ARTY MANGAN, BIONEERS: You wrote that “Growing plants and saving seeds are some of the most provocative, democratic, and radical acts one can take towards reconciling the modern world’s alienation from the earth and the miracle of life.” How has that influenced your life and the life of folks that you’ve worked with?

DOUG GOSLING, OAEC: We all have ideas about why we’re in such dire straits right now as a species. I think that certainly one of the primary reasons is that we have, as modern people and maybe particularly as Westerners, but not necessarily only as Westerners, become so alienated from the earth from which we rise. In fact, there’s an effort to alienate us from everything that is true. I think why things are so demented, is that people consider themselves outside of everything around us. People, for millennia, have always had a relationship with the land and the water and the air, and understood fully where their food came from. Being in this place that has had a very similar mission over the years, from Farallones to Center for Seven Generations to OAEC, I get to stand here and receive people, thousands of them, and discover over and over again that people feel the alienation even if they don’t know what it is. People are  starving for being in relationship, both with the earth and with each other.

I’ve seen amazing things happen. I think the most profound things are the simplest things. When people have an opportunity on our volunteer day to put their hands in healthy living soil, it changes them. It absolutely changes them. No matter what we’re doing in this garden whether it’s digging Bermuda grass or digging blackberries, people thank us at the end of the day to be working on their knees, getting dirty, and having great conversations with a lot of people trying to accomplish the same thing. Working together is a profound experience and it’s something that people don’t get to have.

Freshly harvested Silver Line

It is a democratic thing, and it also is a radical act to be a farmer because we’re saying, “This is what’s important, we need to be in relationship to the earth; we need to understand the earth; we need to collaborate and co-create with the earth to be productive and create beauty.” We can do that. I think gardening and farming, especially organics and the small-scale sustainable agriculture movement, are keyholes through which people can re-perceive the earth and the truths of life.

It’s radical, because as we know, the forces are dark and great against taking us off the land and getting hold of our genetics and our food and our varieties. All of that belongs in the hands of the people. The importance of seed saving or gardening, or understanding what makes a healthy relationship and healthy systems, is information that we’ve always had, but it’s been taken away from us. So, it is a way to empower people in a really profound way. It gives people something to stand on and to have perspective from.

ARTY: Speaking of seed saving, can you give me a couple of examples of plants of the seeds that you saved and how they’ve adapted in your region, garden, and soil, and what kind of changes you’ve observed?

Shinshu Runner Beans against background of mixed Runner Bean varieties from market in Mexico City

DOUG: I remember really early on, in the first few years of being here, Michael Presley used to garden here, he then went to Ocean Song. I remember comparing with him. We both started growing different varieties of orach or mountain spinach. The most striking one is fuchsia colored. He took seeds to Ocean Song from here. Over a couple of years we noticed that they had differentiated from each other. They had a different cast to their color. It’s a little difficult to notice actual changes in plants, but what I do notice is that plants throw off sports that are interesting.

I noticed, for example, that dinosaur kale rarely, but occasionally, throws off a version of itself that is a dark green color and shiny as opposed to being blue-green and having a sort of dusty look to it. I’ve been selecting that over the years and created a new variety, which is the way it’s done. In some ways, I believe that plants indigenate very quickly. We know that can be true in a matter of a few generations.

One of the reasons why our nursery is actually a powerful and significant operation is because we offer plants that have been grown here. I think we can assume that they are more comfortable now than when they first arrived, because that’s what happens. It happens to all creatures. We offer things that from seed stock that have been, in some cases, tended and replanted since the early 1980s. I think we’re offering plants that we can safely say are comfortable in Northern California, in the kind of climate that we represent.

Because the process is slow and gradual, it’s hard for me to actually say that I’ve witnessed major changes, but I definitely notice some unusual things that happen. For example, we have a motherwort, which is a medicinal herb, that has come up frilly. It has a frilly edge to the leaves. I’ve selected that out, so now we offer OAEC’s curly motherwort. I don’t know if it has different medicinal properties, but it certainly is beautiful. It’s a beautiful variation on what I have seen motherwort to look like over the years.

ARTY: The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that “Diversity of cultivated crops declined 75% during the 20th century, and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050.” Why is preserving food crop biodiversity important?

DOUG: I think it’s important on all kinds of levels. It’s about preserving culture. Cultivated and wild plants represent stories of relationship with humankind for millennia. Many, if not most, of the stories are lost, but there are stories that are extant that we can share. Having diversity in a garden is one of the foundations of creating a system that mimics the natural world around us. No matter how simple a system might look superficially, it’s immensely complex because it relies on relationship and interrelationship.

San Pedro Cactus ready for propagation

While we don’t necessarily know exactly what’s going to happen in our gardens when we bring in the diversity, nature figures it out. In setting the stage for the opportunity and the potentiality of relationship that creates a web of life that is more resilient to stress on the system. It is essential for a successful garden or farming operation to set the stage for relationship among a diversity of players.

We’ve seen that monocultures fail. They’re failing everywhere we look. Diversity in nature has succeeded for millennia. It’s not even mimicking nature, it’s being nature. On some level understanding that we can’t survive alone nor can any system that we create. It has to be populated with members that can be in relationship with each other.

What that does is it welcomes more diversity that exists around us to have a habitat or opportunities for pollination to happen. You can look to the soil as the ultimate teacher. A healthy, productive, harmonious soil is one that is made of millions if not billions of players that have a part that we barely understand. If you work on making a living soil, then your plants are an expression of that. It’s about always looking to nature as a teacher.

Hergonas Fava from the High Andes, ILanto Evans’ Yellow Fava, OAEC Purple Fava

­­­­­­­­ARTY: You grow thousands of varieties of medicinal, edible and ornamental plants in the Mother Garden and make many of them available to the public through your nursery. How is that going?

DOUG: In 1995, we started with one plant sale a year, and we discovered resonance immediately and thought this is something we should keep doing because we already had so much diversity in the Mother Garden and a lot of unusual crops as far back as the early 1980s that people weren’t familiar with, especially the Andean crops. We were probably some of the first people to be saving mashua and oca, and quinoa, and crops like that. We were one of the few people who offered certified organic, heirloom, non-hybrid, exclusive varieties. We offered a ridiculous diversity of varieties. I am kind of obsessive compulsive and I’m just so excited and passionate about diversity and finding it, and reveling in it, and wanting to share it, that we offered plant varieties that I think no one else did.

That continued to grow through the years, until the drought hit and had an impact, as it should have, on people’s gardening habits. With water restrictions in Santa Rosa and other cities a third of our business dropped when the drought hit, that was 10 years ago or so.

OAEC Plant Nursery

The other thing we discovered, even after we slowly started recovering from the drought and people did begin to return to growing annual vegetables, we realized that there was a lot of competition. Literally you could go to the hardware store in Occidental and get heirloom tomatoes. And while our plant starts have not been more expensive than any other nurseries, they’re not the least expensive. People were opting to buy things elsewhere, and we’re sort of seeing our income slowly going down alarmingly. At that point, it felt like the right time to change our mission to focusing on perennials – perennial food crops, perennial culinary and medicinal herbs, habitat, and pollinator plants. We focus on several genera to give people an idea of the diversity that exists within several of those, like abutilons and especially salvias. We have a pretty huge collection of salvias.

We never have really been a business first, even though we need to think about that. It’s always been a mission-driven program. We’re unlike most other nurseries, if not all other nurseries, in that really what drives me and the people who work here is a celebration of plants and diversity, and a desire to share that wealth with everybody.

We do things here that are not necessarily wise in terms of business. The diversity is over the top, and we tend things intensively, and it has made me realize that we are not just a nursery, but also a conservation project that is mission driven and not necessarily bottom-line driven, although we have to respect that because all programs at OAEC need to not lose money. We realize that this is the sort of effort that should have supporters, and that should have some financial foundation beyond us trying to sell enough plants to balance the budget.

Chilacayote Squash from Mexico

I think that some of the decisions that you might make in a business where you’re trying to be as economically sustainable as possible are not decisions that I want to make, like limiting the number of varieties or selling thousands of one particular thing that happens to be the greatest money maker.

We’re looking at creating a structure that includes the nursery being subsidized as a program. The nursery is unique because it is part of the story the Mother Garden, which has been around since 1974, and has been continuously hand-tended and organic. It is one of the oldest certified organic farms in the state. We have, for years and years, been pursuing, researching, and demonstrating the importance of diversity in natural systems and gardens, and have done seed saving since the late 1980s. The nursery is the outward public face of the garden where we literally disperse what we know and love and are tending with the belief that we need to do this. With so much uncertainty in the future, what better thing to do than to share the wealth of the allies who have helped us make it through so far in the face of who knows what? Our systems are collapsing, and the more people who understand how plants can contribute to our health and well-being, the better. So, that’s a big part of what motivates us to find allies who want to support this work financially.

If you are interested in finding out more about the OAEC Mother Garden and nursery contact:

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