Seeds are an example of nature's efficiency. They're life in a dormant state, packaged in unique ways to handle the changes they'll face until they find their way back to the earth and another fertile season.

Sometimes this is an easy process. The seeds fall from the plant, find a spot on the earth, wait out winter, and sprout. But if it were this easy or certain, plants wouldn't produce the great numbers of seeds they do.

They produce enough seeds to offset the effects of all the animals who eat seeds and to make up for the seeds which fall and sprout in places where they'll never flourish. They turn out seeds which can be eaten and excreted by animals and then sprout in a spot which has been custom-fertilized for them. Birds plant the wild berries. Deer eat persimmons that fall from the trees and the seeds are scattered throughout the woods.

Some seeds are carried by wind, some by water. Many are carried by animals -- the dog that runs through burdock, the people who catch beggar's-ticks on their pants. Many plants found their way to the new world by hitching a ride.

Seeds are a treasure recognized throughout the animal world. Give mice a choice of food, and, if there are seeds they'll go for that. Peanut butter and sesame butter seem to lose their attraction as mousetrap bait. Mice, like most creatures, need to recognize nature's richness when they find it.

A packet of seeds is a rich and powerful thing. It puts part of the power of nature into the hands of men and women. We're given to help the seeds to grow and flourish, and to help ourselves at the same time -- but nature still does most of the work.

If nature is divine, then gardeners are priests or monks or keepers of the flame. We work and tend the earth. We make offerings to it -- of compost, manure, minerals, orange peels. We prepare the earth. We sow the seeds. Some of us make incantations, or rely on the heavens to let us know what to do when. Then some of us are totally scientific. The fact remains: something happens. Seeds come to life, and grow to fruition, and try as we might, we just can't explain how it happens. It's the mystery of life.

Now is the time to get into the magic of seeds by planting tender annuals inside, and to give even the hardy plants, like cabbage, peppers and lettuce an indoor start.

Start tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cabbages, broccoli, lettuce and annual flowers inside in late February, and by the time your outdoor plot is ready to plant, you'll have homegrown plants to set out.

Start them in peat pellets or a sterile planting mix. It has to be sterile to keep young seedlings from damping off, which is a fungus disease. Plant shallowly, no deeper than the seeds are big; soak the soil, and keep it moist and warm until the seeds sprout. You can do this easily by slipping the trays into plastic bags and sealing them until the seeds sprout.

Give the seedlings as much daytime sun as possible. A southern exposure is best. If you don't have enough window space, try building a coldframe that faces south, or invest in grow lights. Light will keep the seedlings from getting spindly. When the roots develop, you can transplant into a richer mix. Keep the plants moist, but don't drown them. Feed them occasionally with fish emulsion. As outdoor planing time draws near, put them outside, a little longer each day, so they can make climate adjustments. If they're in a coldframe, leave it open longer as the weather warms.

If all this seems like a lot of work, remember the gardener is only an assistant. Think of the workload nature carries.