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Garden Variety: Where to Find the Right Seeds for Your Garden By RON SULLIVAN

Friday January 13, 2006

While we’re on the topic of seeds, there are some you can start right now. Some of these are exotic to some of us, but comfort food from Grandma’s kitchen for others. And some of our grandmas’ kitchens have been through more changes than others. 

You can find seeds from Kitazawa Seed Company, a Bay Area distributor and broker, in their bi- and trilingual, green-printed manila packets in nurseries and in food stores like the Berkeley Bowl. Most contain lots of seeds—ideal for sharing among friends or for sequential planting, to get a constant supply for the table.  

Kitazawa Seed Company has been through several big changes in its own corporate life. Brothers Buemon and Gijiu Kitazawa started their nursery and seed company in 1916, splitting the halves of the business between them next year.  

Gijiu moved the seed brokerage to a downtown San Jose storefront and sold seeds wholesale and retail, adding his own line of Asian vegetables. This became the main seed source for the growing population of Japanese tenant farmers in California and Oregon. He enlisted his family in the business of packing, recording, growing out and testing. His eldest daughter, the landscape architect Mai Arbegast—who’s now a Berkeley resident—recalled to Nikkeiwest writer Margaret Schulze, “I spent much of my early life in boots stomping on particular tomatoes and collecting the seed for further crosses.”  

A second big change was visited on the company in 1942, when the family was packed off to the Heart Mountain internment camp. They got a sponsor and clearance to move to Michigan until World War II ended; when they returned to San Jose they had to wait for the family that had occupied their house to leave. In 1945, the business was restarted from the basement of that house. Kitazawa made the wartime scattering of his fellow Japanese-descended Americans over the continent into a service opportunity, and began mail-order sales and shipping.  

When Gijiu died in 1963, his oldest son Ernest took over the business. The next uprooting was by eminent domain, when the San Jose Airport authority bought the house and demolished it for expansion in 1991. The next year, Sakae Komatsu, husband of Gijiu’s youngest daughter Helen, bought the business and ran it until his death in 1997. Helen and their children took over until Helen retired and sold it to Maya Shiroyama in the Spring of 2000. 

Shiroyama, an Oakland resident, is the first owner of the 88-year-old company who’s not a Kitazawa relative; fortunately for us all, she was primarily interested in keeping the seed company on its course. She’s well situated on the wave of interest in fresh vegetables, new sensations, and (paradoxically) home-grown familiar tastes that’s been one of the happier trends of the last couple decades. 

Kitazawa sells some 200 varieties of seeds to home gardeners and to commercial farmers, including small-farm growers of the sort you meet at local farmers’ markets. Sources are expanding: varieties coming from Thailand, Vietnam, India, and, in an interesting circle, include things recalled from the kitchens of grandmas from Egypt, the Mideast, and other scattered places of which we’re all, ultimately, the harvest.