Growing sustainably, one seed at a time | October 12, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 12, 2012

Growing sustainably, one seed at a time

Pair of classes focus on the fine points of organic gardening

by Haiy Le

Organic farming typically conjures up images of getting the compost right, avoiding manufactured pesticides or supporting local farms. But Mark House, assistant garden manager at Ecology Action in Willits, Calif., takes it back to basics: saving seeds.

On Saturday, Oct. 13, House will be teaching the classes "Using Master Charts" and "Seed Collection and Saving" at Palo Alto's Common Ground. The first is based on the book, "How to Grow More Vegetables," written by John Jeavons, Ecology Action's executive director. The second deals with its "grow biointensive" method, including threshing demonstrations of different plants and seed-saving techniques.

The nonprofit was founded in 1971 with the mission to train people to better feed themselves while conserving resources. The book, published in 1974, was among the first to launch eco-friendly and sustainable-growing techniques and espoused the "grow biointensive" method — small-scale, high-yield, all-organic gardening that uses minimal resources.

The method involves a fair amount of planning and math, but House assures those who may be intimidated. "John has compiled all the information and data from 40 years of research into the Master Charts (a section found in the book). If you want to plant tomatoes, you go to the Master Charts and then to the line of the tomatoes," he said.

The class will demonstrate to students how to use the charts to deduce the correct gardening procedure such as the amount of seed for their designated space, the number of flats needed or when to sow and transplant.

"It looks like a lot of information and this class will be how to utilize this information to the best of your advantage," House said.

He will also be teaching Seed Collection and Saving, a class that will help "people feel more in control of their food supply by knowing where their food and seed comes from."

The first hour will be a discussion of the "grow biointensive" method and the second half will have threshing demonstrations of amaranth and quinoa and seed-saving techniques on tomatoes.

"You can get tens of thousands of seeds from an amaranth plant," House explained as he discussed the ways seed saving can cut down costs by producing new plants for the garden and preserving a favorite plant that may not be available in future years.

"It's also a community-building process. People are sharing their seeds and starting seed-saving clubs and booths at farmers market. You are getting access to different seed varieties that you normally wouldn't have otherwise," he noted.

Despite an information-saturated world where people can find information from YouTube and various books, House emphasizes the experiential learning of his course: "The main advantages will be the hands-on experience and the chance to see more examples of different demonstrations. It is learning about the experience versus just staring at a computer screen."

House realized his interest in gardening in a circuitous fashion. He grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where his father's gardening hobby engaged him as a child. But the childhood interest did not keep House pinned down as he tried out careers as a rare-book dealer, a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska, and a search-and-rescue swimmer in the U.S. Coast Guard.

In his late 30s, he moved back to New York where he became involved in the grow-local movement.

"I was living in Canandaigua and a lot of the chain stores had come down and the downtown was suffering," he remembered.

House led the effort to bring a farmers market to the town that revitalized the area.

"For me it was about bringing people together and creating the connections between the local community," he said. This ultimately led to his rediscovery of gardening.

Fifteen years ago, House began gardening again and volunteering at farmers markets. "I apprenticed myself to organic farms and eventually had my own farm."

Now at 48, he has found his "labor of love" holding the position at Ecology Action for four years now.

Through his courses, he has encountered more people who want to live more sustainably. "People who come to the courses are mostly beginning gardeners, backyard people who are just starting out, or those who are familiar with John Jeavons' book and want to learn more about making sustainable decisions," he said.

As for House himself, he is trying to live more aligned with the closed-system, holistic thinking espoused in the "grow biointensive" method. His eclectic career path is now pushing him towards starting a bee-keeping business.

"The pollinators are in trouble with the pesticide and the environment. For me, it's partly one more dimension of that whole system thinking.

What: Using Master Charts

When: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13

What: Seed Collection and Saving

When: 2-4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13

Where: Common Ground, 599 College Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $31 each class

Info: or 650-493-6072

Editorial Intern Haiy Le can be emailed at


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