Native son

Comstock Seed Co. keeps native plants growing on local lands

Ed Kleiner of Comstock Seed grabs a stem of Great Basin wildrye on his farm in Gardnerville.

Ed Kleiner of Comstock Seed grabs a stem of Great Basin wildrye on his farm in Gardnerville.

Photo By kat kerlin

Comstock Seed Co., 917 Highway 88, Gardnerville. (775) 265-0090.

When a major wildfire threatens to fill Lake Tahoe with scorched soil, when a housing development is required to reseed disturbed earth, or when a ski slope needs to be revegetated, Ed Kleiner gets a call.

Kleiner and his wife, Linda, own Comstock Seed Co., which collects and sells thousands of pounds of native seed for projects in the Mojave Desert, Sierra and Great Basin regions. Depending on the season, they may have three to 30 seed gatherers roaming the area at a time. The business sits on a 43-acre farm in Gardnerville, where the Kleiners live with their sons, some chickens, a few adopted desert tortoises and a lot of native plants. On a recent summer day, an old-fashioned windmill spun lazily in the morning sun, overlooking a historic barn, a pond, a hoophouse, storage buildings and a solar array powering it all.

With a wiry frame, tanned skin, a long-sleeved workshirt and dirt-stained cargo pants, Kleiner looks like a man who spends much of his day working outside. He’s gathered native seeds in every state west of the short grass prairies and has been collecting and selling them for nearly 25 years. His interest in native plants dates back to the 1960s, when his father, retired plant ecologist Ed Kleiner Sr., took him along on a research trip to Canyonlands National Park.

“I learned every single plant,” he said of those childhood trips. “It just sort of rubbed off.”

Though not a retail store, Comstock Seed welcomes walk-ins. One woman came in for a pound of Great Basin wildflower blend. Sales manager Stacey Sigafus entered the seed storage building, where white feed bags line the walls, grouped by categories—this side for grasses, that one for flowers, this corner for wetland species, that one for pasture legumes. She opened a bag, filling her metal scoop with a mixture of black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, blue flax, and prairie coneflower, among others. But home landscaping isn’t Comstock Seed’s bread and butter.

By requiring reclamation and restoration measures, “the Forest Service and BLM drive our business,” said Kleiner. “There’s a certain amount of ecological sincerity in folks, but others just want to do what they’re mandated to do—and not much of it.”

Kleiner started his business by providing seeds for companies doing coal, pipeline and power line projects. “Now we’re doing solar and wind farms,” he said. “There’s a real footprint out there for centralized energy.”

Outside, Kleiner stood beside an experimental plot, grabbed a stem of native Great Basin wildrye and ran his fingers over its head, letting its seed drift to the ground. He explained how it, and the sulfur buckwheat and red-petaled firecracker penstemon planted next to it, are worth much more than hay, which is grown on nearby farms.

Beside the barn, creeping wild rye dried beneath a black tarp in the sun. Particularly adroit at fighting invasive tall whitetop, the rye was destined for a Nature Conservancy project at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Fallon.

“Most of our sales are in the Great Basin,” said Kleiner. Given that the majority of his seeds are grown in, collected from and adapted to this region, he added, “That’s the way it should be.”