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Historic Ecology Center has Plenty to Offer Local Growers

Free classes and workshops, seeds and supplies, and tons of info on growing sustainably in the Bay are offered at the homegrown Ecology Center.

If you’ve lived in Berkeley for a while, you’re probably already familiar with the Ecology Center and its important role in both the history and the everyday life of this city.

It might be best known among locals for its two most visible functions: operating Berkeley’s curbside recycling program and its three weekly Farmers’ Markets. Longtime residents might remember how community members formed the non-profit in 1969 as a space for information, organization and activism on environmental issues, and how it established its significance when oil spilled in the Bay in 1971 and it became the action center for organizing volunteers.

Being new to Berkeley, I didn’t know much about it until a friend mentioned the seed-lending library there, where anyone can get free seeds in exchange for promising to harvest and return the same seeds from the grown crop. I checked out their website, and found they had a lot of great information, including an article I mentioned last time that taught me about finding cheap wood for garden beds.

I took a trip to the Ecology Center last week, and found that they have a multitude of incredible resources for locals.

I spoke to Beck Cowles, the information program manager, and Jahan Khalishi, the information program assistant, to learn about all the center has to offer — free classes and workshops, organic seeds and supplies, books on everything environmental to buy at their bookstore or borrow from their library, and much more.

While the material resources are great, the most valuable thing they have to offer might be knowledge and information. The Ecology Center has tons of it, and makes the most useful of it easily accessible through a variety of channels:

One is the EcoCalendar, a comprehensive listing of workshops, classes, events, and lectures going on in the Bay Area — at the Ecology Center and elsewhere — with an environmental, agricultural, or social justice bent.

Another is the EcoDirectory, a searchable and “carefully vetted” database of businesses that provide services (from “beekeeping” to “battery disposal”) with an emphasis on environmentally-friendly methods.

There’s a library of books and videos that anyone is free to access on site, and that Ecology Center members can check out and bring home.

There are the fact sheets, which you can find online and on site, that have planting schedules, tips on non-toxic weed control or saving water in the garden, the top ten reasons to buy local, the problems with Roundup — the list goes on.

Best of all, there are the actual human beings at the information desk, who are on-hand to answer, or help you find the answer to, any questions you might have.

“Say you’re an average gardener, just starting out,” said Cowles. “We can walk you through how to build up your soil, where to get plant starts, where to get salvaged wood for raised beds. We really are an amazing resource for gardeners.”

The seed library is run by an organization called the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), whose mission is to “conserve the remaining genetic diversity of our planet's seed stock.” All of the seeds are non-GMO, open-pollinated, and freely available to the public.

The beauty of the program, said Khalishi, is that it “helps maintain the strength of local seed varieties, steers people away from GMOs, and creates a cycle of giving and receiving.”

It’s pretty easy to check seeds out — pick the ones you want to try, fill out a form, and take them away. I decided to pick some that seemed like they’d be pretty easy — red iceberg lettuce and arugula — and one I thought might be a challenge — a winter squash variety called “Jonathan pumpkin.” 

I worried a little bit about harvesting the seeds once they’re grown, which I’ve never done before, and I know can be tricky for certain crops. Store assistant Russ Harvey advised me not to worry too much about it quite yet.

“Mainly what you’ve got is time,” said store assistant Russ Harvey. “Take them home, get them in the ground first. When they start growing, then worry about saving the seeds.”

Not surprisingly, the Ecology Center had me covered here too — the EcoHouse, the Ecology Center’s home for classes and workshops on sustainable living, offers a seed saving class on Aug. 14.

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