The need to plant seeds


(Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist January 22

We live, apparently, in a 24/7 world. My heart knew this before I did — it beats away at all hours, bless it. What is less clear is whether the constancy of the digital age merely permits a 24/7 presence by the computer’s human partners or now requires it.

It is a world our ancestors would not be able to comprehend because their time was a relationship with nature’s rhythms. They marked the year by the passage of the seasons and the vital period between the day you sowed a grain of barley and the day you came to harvest its fruitful ears. You lived in seed time.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

Our forebears knew nothing of the complex genetic coding of each seed, but they knew that this dormant parcel of life was anything but simple. From a tiny ball that would sit on the head of a pin, you could grow a cabbage that was four feet across. From one corn kernel came a stalk as tall as Abe Lincoln. This wasn’t simple; it was miraculous.

Today, the magic of seeds is diluted by our ability to manipulate them as never before, and by the rancorous differences that swirl around the nature, ownership and future of seeds. In the ancient world, seeds were merely emblems of our own existence; now they are entwined in arguments over agricultural systems, lousy nutrition and global warming. An underlying belief is that the farther we get from the wild article through biotechnology and Big Ag, the more removed we are from the diversity and availability of food plants that sustained, empowered and culturally defined our ancient kin.

Whether this debate is uppermost in the minds of hobby gardeners, I don’t know, but it is consuming garden book publishers. Here are a few of the new and upcoming titles sent my way in the past few weeks: “Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet,” by Sarah Elton; “Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth,” by Vicki Robin; and “Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds,” by Scott Chaskey.

Why do I grow my own vegetables? For lots of reasons, some of them allied with the goals of the local food movement, namely taking control of the quality, freshness and variety of my food. But those aims come behind less lofty and more selfish reasons. Much of the desire is driven by motives that sound, on the page, just corny: the need to touch and smell the soil, to nurture a living thing, to be outdoors, to talk back to a chirping wren. The whole business fulfills an innate need. I can’t imagine not gardening.

Much of the impetus is the challenge of trying to get it right. The mechanics of gardening are complicated, and no two years are the same. Timing is everything. Last year, I started the pepper plants too late, but there is a danger in germinating seeds too soon: The plants can become potbound and stressed while you wait for the spring to warm up.

This week, I’m sowing cabbage varieties, kohlrabi, leeks and — though I haven’t done this before — beets. I’ve always directly sown beets in the garden in early spring, but they seem to stall for so long. Maybe as transplants, they will excel; we’ll see.

After taking a couple of years off, I’m growing globe artichokes again. Winter survival is not assured here, but you can grow a variety named Imperial Star as a productive annual — if you start the seeds early enough under lights indoors. When people think about planting them, in April, it’s too late to fuss with seeds if you want artichokes the first year. So when you offer transplants nonchalantly to gardening friends in the spring, there is a sly self-satisfaction at play.

The point is, the mind is often too absorbed with the minutiae of getting it right to think too much about the greater crusades of our age.

I keep a cheap refrigerator in the basement where my seeds are stored. In the depths of winter, I like to rummage through boxes and padded envelopes to see what I have and when I bought it and to decide what I should order afresh.

Sometimes I splurge on an ounce packet of arugula ($5.90) only to find I already have one hiding in the fridge. The other day, I had an unstoppable urge to order a leek named Tadorna, but the catalogue had dropped it. So I got another named Bandit, which has similar qualities: beautiful blue-green leaves and a capacity to take freezes. When I returned to the fridge, I found a barely tapped seed packet of Tadorna. Seed time is full of such surprises.

I started keeping seeds in a fridge after doing an experiment and found that those left in tins in the shed were protected from the mice but quickly lost their potency compared with their chilled counterparts. The seeds of onion, leek and parsnip, for example, have a notoriously short shelf life unless they are nurtured. This was borne out by data gathered by Rob Johnston, founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and contained in a booklet he wrote, “Growing Garden Seeds.” Johnston doesn’t refer specifically to the refrigerator, rather to “consistently cool and dry” conditions. In Washington, folks, that’s the fridge.

Cold storage extends the seed life of a parsnip to three years and an onion to as much as four years. A tomato seed that might last three years unprotected would be viable for as long as seven years.

The tomato, the squash, the cucumber — these are seeds you coax into life in March. Such things as sunflowers and beans are pushed directly into the prepared soil in May. For now, I’m happy to fiddle with seed packets and rattle them and peel back the flaps to peek at the black grains that by November will be stout blue leeks, ready for the soup pot. Life in seed time is good.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

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