JUDITH LARNER LOWRY | LARNER SEEDS | West Marin
The Bolinas Mesa is quiet on a Monday morning—only the vibrations of a light sea breeze float through the air. Judith Larner Lowry is walking slowly, looking down around her feet, surveying the Larner Seeds garden, which sits atop the Mesa. As she meanders through the plants and scrubs—she has done this thousands of times in the past three decades—, her mind moves in tandem through the names and qualities of every living thing she sees. This is no strained effort, just the free-wheeling mind of a gardener, plant-lover, and wilderness-dweller. She who lives among plants knows plants like she knows people—maybe even better.
Judith is the owner of Larner Seeds, a nursery and garden that specializes in local natives, “[seeking] to promote the riches of our California flora.” They sell seeds, plants, books (of which Judith has written three), and landscaping services. Unlike other nurseries, the focus of Larner Seeds is on plants that thrive (and have thrived for thousands of years) naturally in the California environment, thus also providing an adequate habitat for bird and inspect species. Judith defines her locale as the North Bay, the area covered by Marin County all the way up to Mendocino, though she concedes that because plants move around, the “local” perimeter is never clear. The demonstration garden out back is a dense, clustered re-imagining of what a native wildland would have looked like here—evergreen shrubs, sages, chaparrals, and sweetgrass—rather than the Eucalyptus, Chiapas oaks, and Monterey pines that people might associate with this area, but were in fact non-natives, brought here much later.
On the shelves of the Larner Seeds shop are hundreds of packets of wildflower seeds. In the greenhouse you’ll find sprouts and shoots. On garden grounds, pots of miner’s lettuces, baby blue eyes, meadowfoam, and clarkias abound among many others. The garden is orderly but scattered; there is a sense of tending and care, but not control—the plants grow everywhere in small and large and uneven patches, as wild as a garden can be.
The idea of reinvigorating the landscape in accordance with its own natural history seems to be not a romantic notion but a pragmatic one—an idea that acknowledges the contingency of the past on the future and protects against self-destruction and present peril—, but Judith admits that when she first moved to Bolinas, Larner Seeds was a tough and lonely business. She had begun her education in gardening and native plants at the Yerba Buena Nursery in Half Moon Bay under the tutelage of its founder Gerda Isenberg, but here, starting out on her own, she faced opposition from neighbors and townspeople. “I was horrified by the lack of a native seed presence here,” she recalls. “As a collector of native seeds, there was nothing for me to collect … You had to go further and further away from town to get to the intact native landscapes.” Toward the end of her book Gardening with a Wild Heart—a book as poetic as it is informative—, she describes an incident in which a local gardener approached her and asked, “Do you really think the earth cares what covers it?” Judith replied, “Maybe not, but the birds, insects, and animals probably do.”
This is how Judith has deepened her sense of home on the Northern Californian coast: by seeking out native plants, studying them, and finding ways to keep them alive, abundant. On the shelves of the Larner Seeds shop are hundreds of packets of wildflower seeds. In the greenhouse you’ll find sprouts and shoots. On garden grounds, pots of miner’s lettuces, baby blue eyes, meadowfoam, and clarkias abound among many others. The garden is orderly but scattered; there is a sense of tending and care, but not control—the plants grow everywhere in small and large and uneven patches, as wild as a garden can be. Judith has found a way to harvest and replant seeds in a way that is sustainable—gathering and eating weeds as nourishment, which allows the other plants to grow (she writes about this in her most recent book called California Foraging). But food and business aside, plants, for Judith, are vital to her very consciousness, a form of memory that is not only embedded in the land, but entwined with her own: “The plants are my pneumonic devices,” she says. “It’s humane—and human—to continually try to deepen your knowledge of where you live.”