Growing Business : Selling Seeds Keeps Couple at 'Foundation of Things'

Times Staff Writer

Fifty-three years ago, when this coastal community was a fertile patchwork of tomato fields and avocado groves, Charles Ledgerwood came to town to sell seeds.

Interstate 5 didn't exist, and El Camino Real was a two-lane dirt track that washed out during heavy rains. Land was cheap; a farmer could put $50 down on an acre one spring and then pay off the balance with proceeds from a single season's crop.

Everyone grew something. It was paradise for a savvy seed man.

Times have changed in Carlsbad. Industrial parks and condominiums carpet former farmland, and the busy freeway carries a growing number of tourists to a thriving downtown. The only agriculture here today is in tiny backyard plots or on land leased from developers awaiting building permits.

But Charles Ledgerwood still sells seeds.

"The nature of the business has changed, but we're still as busy as ever," Ledgerwood said during an interview Friday. "Herbs are in, you know, and there's a big demand for the greens--spinach, Swiss chard, green beans. People are getting back into natural eating. They like to grow their own."

Ledgerwood, a spry, soft-spoken man of 80 with a quick wit and a knack for storytelling, peddles his seeds from the adobe, tile-roofed store he built along the Old Coast Highway in 1933. Next door is the home he shares with his wife, Violet, and surrounding the compound is a garden where the couple cultivate several varieties of seed crops and more than half of the food they eat.

The store itself evokes thoughts of another era. A scale, circa 1930, is still in use--certified annually by the state Department of Weights and Measures. And under a sign reading "Gardening Grows on You," the wall behind the front counter is lined with seeds stored in neatly labeled metal bread tins half-a-century old.

More than 200 varieties of flower, fruit and vegetable seeds--some, like a rare Israeli cantaloupe, available nowhere else in the country--are on sale at Ledgerwood's. Lovers of Long Island brussels sprouts can find seeds at the store, and fans of red baron beets, dwarf peas and mammoth sunflowers are in luck as well. Squash enthusiasts may choose from 10 varieties of seeds, and even okra and the Laurentian rutabaga are represented.

"You never know what someone will want to grow," said Ledgerwood, who buys most of his seeds in bulk from commercial growers. "I try to carry them all."

Also on sale are pesticides, gopher traps, an array of gardening books--"How to Grow Your Own Bulbs," "Pruning Handbook"--and sacks of potting mix and WilGro Steer Manure. Ledgerwood also runs a print shop and publishes his own seed catalogue, "Reliable Seeds."

In the early years, the family's clients were primarily big-order farmers cultivating large plots from Orange County to the Mexican border. Three days a week, Violet would tend the store while her husband hit the road, calling on the farmers, taking orders and making deliveries.

But gradually, after Carlsbad's incorporation in the early 1950s, home building erupted in the area and farmers began to sell off the land and move to greener pastures. Ledgerwood's forays into the backcountry ended; business sagged.

He dabbled in politics, serving as Carlsbad's mayor between 1958 and 1960, and then, with seed sales still down, was forced to take a job as grounds foreman for what was then the Oceanside-Carlsbad School District. The seed business continued, however, with Violet at the helm.

In 1974, Ledgerwood retired from the school district and returned full-time and with new vigor to his beloved store. Today, the fellow many locals call the "seed man" can be found behind the counter from early morning to dusk six days a week.

"I love it, because the world's nicest people are people who garden," said Ledgerwood, who grew up in South Pasadena. "And selling seeds means I'm dealing with nature all the time. I'm always working out in the garden, experimenting with new plants. It keeps us healthy."

In addition, Ledgerwood's devotion to seeds stems from his belief that "if it weren't for plants, there wouldn't be animal life on Earth. And if it weren't for seeds, there wouldn't be plants. I feel somehow that we're working with the foundation of things."

Although small-scale farmers continue to buy seeds from Ledgerwood, the store serves a range of patrons. On one recent afternoon, a businessman in pin stripes hoping to plant purple alyssum in his yard drifted in on the heels of a grower in Levis looking for some Copenhagen cabbage.

Another man, new to the area, bought a few seeds but was really after Ledgerwood's expert advice: "What sort of decorative tree would do well in this climate?" he asked. Simple, Ledgerwood said, pointing out the window to a lovely tree in his yard. "You want a drought-resistant New Zealand Christmas tree."

Tourists from Saudi Arabia once visited the store and bought all the tomato seeds in stock, and Ledgerwood frequently fills mail orders from India, Madagascar, Australia and other foreign lands.

There are several reasons why the Ledgerwoods' seed business has endured. Analysts might credit the lack of competition; while several Imperial Valley firms sell seed in bulk, none that Ledgerwood knows of will sell in quantities less than a pound. At the Carlsbad store, you can buy as little as 20 cents worth of seeds.

In addition, the couple's costs are low; the property is paid off, overhead is low and there's no payroll.

But yet another explanation for the couple's success--genuine devotion to the seed business and to a way of life that is all but a thing of the past--seems to ring true.

"We get pressure from developers to sell out, to take the money and move into a condominium, but I couldn't live in one of those confounded things for a minute," Ledgerwood said. "We intend to keep on going here until we can't stand up any more.

"And then, I guess the business will just die with us."

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