Spring Olson’s mission is to put overlooked, unused patches of lawn to work growing crops of vegetables. The program she founded to facilitate that vision is Central Oregon Seed Exchange, which is designed to connect local residents with locally raised seed so they can grow a garden of their own.
“It’s really expensive to buy local produce, so I (am) encouraging people to do it on their own. … We’ve got so much land here that’s not being used correctly, so helping to facilitate the knowledge for growing and using the land is the goal,” Olson said.
Olson started the program in winter 2012, and it’s been growing in popularity ever since. From her home operation in Bend, Olson sorts, packages and labels thousands of flower and vegetable seeds every year and then delivers her supply to Central Oregon Locavore in Bend. Sometimes her daughter, Lily Ciaglo, 7, helps with the packing process. The labels are printed, then hand-cut, peeled and adhered to each seed envelope. To finish, the mother-daughter team handwrites the plant name on the label.
Olson first noticed a need for bringing locally produced seed to the community when she was doing farm consulting work for Deschutes Soil and Water Conservation District. She saw that lots of people with land weren’t taking full advantage of it. That sprouted the idea to ask farmers she worked with in her consultancy for their leftover seed so she could make it available to the community.
When the program started, Olson was packaging a few packets a day. Now she processes about 500 a weekend in the busy season, which is in February and May. But the seed collecting and packaging goes on year-round.
“I would say annually I process 40 pounds of seed, which is insane. The beans are really heavy … compared to lettuce seeds, which will blow away in the wind,” said Olson.
The program offers about 50 types of vegetables and 30 types of flowers, including a pollinator mix designed to attract bees, which is seeds of calendula, California poppy and echinacea. The most popular seeds are kale, lettuces, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.
“We try to focus on things that are really easy to grow,” said Olson. “We do also have eggplant and artichoke, and people know what they’re getting with those. … You have to pamper an artichoke or a tomato (plant) more than you do kale.” Olson also relies on local gardeners to contribute seed to the project.
Why local seed?
Olson describes the seed she collects from five farmers as local, organic, non-GMO and cold-climate hardy. Because the seed comes from plants raised in Central Oregon, they’re familiar with the cold winters and dry conditions. “They’re acclimatized,” said Olson. “They’ve gone through a few seasons in the rough weather that we have, so they tend to do a little bit better.”
In the fall, Olson hosts classes to teach how to save the seeds from plants. “A lot of people don’t know how to collect seeds. They’ll know how to grow the basil, but then not know how to preserve the seed from it to grow it again.”
In addition to saving and packaging seeds for the community, Olson is preparing to launch a Preschool Immersion Program in order to get kids active in growing vegetables.
“(The program) is to try and get kids outside and increase nutrition education,” said Olson. She’ll visit three preschools in Bend and bring all the supplies necessary for them to plant carrot or lettuce seeds in small pots to take home and watch grow. “I’ll print out a care sheet and then send them on their way. They can do the rest on their own, and maybe their preschool will engage them in some way, like ask them to bring it in and make a salad with the stuff they grow,” Olson said.
Even though the seeds through the program are better suited for the Central Oregon climate, Olson says standard planting guidelines should be followed. When to plant seeds outside depends on the weather.
“I would say around May or June is when you can start them outside. I always refer people to the OSU Master Gardeners website, where they have Central Oregon gardening specifications,” Olson said.
The seeds are available year-round, but for the best selection, pick some up soon, as they tend to go fast.
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