Kitazawa Seed Co. – preserving an heirloom tradition

Kitazawa Seed owners Jim Ryugo and Maya Shiroyama at Forni Brown Welsh Nursery yesterday

As Americans become more ‘green’ and support local food, we honor those on this Earth Day weekend who help farmers, nurserymen, chefs and home gardeners grow their crops.  Yesterday, on Earth Day, I met Maya Shiroyama and Jim Ryugo, owners of Kitazawa Seed Co., two Bay Area heroes of the local food movement.  I say heroes because they rescued the seed company that by 2000 was struggling financially and would have closed were it not for their taking over the business.  And they did so not to make money since it wasn’t a viable operation at the time, but to continue a tradition.   Maya, who grew up on a farm, said she use to plant Kitazawa seeds with her grandfather, then with her father who would ask Maya to make the trip from the East Bay down to San Jose to pick up the seeds.

Today, Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Co. sells over 400 specialty Asian vegetable seeds to nurseries, restaurants and home gardeners like me, across the country.  Even Martha Stewart recommended them on a recent segment of her show.   In five years, Kitazawa Seed Co. will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Kitazawa seeds – new and used

The tradition of selling heirloom seeds is captured by the appealing 1917-era packets, which are heirlooms in themselves.  They compel you to inspect every label with their exotic-sounding names and interesting shapes, and inspire you to plant them.  Kitazawa is not open to the public but sells to consumers from their website which has all the details.  If you are new to gardening or to Asian vegetables, you might want to order one of their “Chef Specialty Gardens“, a pre-selected mix of vegetables by theme.

Young mizuna (mustard) April 21, 2012

Having lived in big cities most of my life, I am not an expert gardener but love the experience of building my own boxes, composting and experimenting with different vegetables.  I have had great success with growing vegetables from Kitazawa seeds.  Yesterday, I bought Vietnamese Mint which is similar to my favorite Japanese herb Shiso.  I’ve had Vietnamese mint in restaurants in Melbourne and can’t wait to try them this spring/summer.

A major opportunity to explore heirloom seeds and vegetables from over 300 exhibitors is during the 2nd Annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa September 11-13, 2012.  You can also meet Maya and Jim there too.