I do not know whether it is because I run an organization dedicated to the preservation of rare varieties of seed or merely the awe that I feel each time I have the pleasure of observing a seed germinate and begin its life as a seedling as it heads towards becoming a mature plant, but at this time of year, I have seeds on the brain. At my organization, Seed Savers Exchange, we are at the height of our sales season. I am looking forward to an upcoming trip to Svalbard, miles north of mainland Norway in the Arctic Circle, where I will be involved in the delivery of rare seeds to the global seed vault. And over the weekend, at the Chicago Botanic Garden where I attended their seed swap known as Superseed Weekend, I realized I was not alone in my singularity of mind.
This morning as I headed to the Seedhouse at Seed Savers Exchange to work with the rest of our staff to send out orders (this is our busy season and we all help out), I realized that the packets we were sending reminded me of the seeds themselves. Each envelope contained life, ready to spring forth from its confines as soon as the seeds inside were given the conditions they needed to prosper. And this excited me in a way that the average shipping of merchandise does not.
To my dismay, many Americans order toilet paper online in great multiples to have it shipped to their front door, a concept that is foreign to me and seemingly wasteful. I cannot fathom all of this cardboard and packaging simply for something that can be obtained around the corner and that has such a lowly, common use. The thought of shipping such items across state borders, and on trucks, planes and whatever other means of transportation that e-tailers use seemed wasteful to me -– a poor use of fossil fuels in my estimation.
But I felt the inverse about seeds. The packages we are sending and the seeds themselves seemed to me to represent a reasonable environmental approach to shipping our food from door to door. Unlike asparagus from South America and tomatoes flown in from Israel, these seeds allowed us to move our sustenance around from place to place in the most environmentally sustainable manner imaginable. As I perused and helped fulfill orders for gardens in places from Texas to Maine, I realized that each package, filled with “Dr. Wyche’s Yellow” tomato or Thai basil, reflects the most efficient form of transportation that God could have imagined. It is no wonder that seeds have been carried forward by settlers and immigrants, and brought back to us by explorers and adventurers. For within the confines of their seed coats, they contain the world’s treasures in the most transportable form.
As I continued to work, I imagined each order I fulfilled as if it were like the floating vegetable gardens of ancient Mexico City. Those barges, covered in soil, sustained by the water on which they floated and teeming with all sorts of produce and plant life, were the mainstay and primary food source for the people who maintained them, feeding them throughout the season. Our packages require the recipients on the other end to provide their own water, but, like those barges, provide their recipients with all that they needed to sustain themselves for the season. So as I packaged “Amish Deer Tongue” lettuce, “Green Globe” artichokes and “True Lemon” cucumbers, I thought of the gardens that the recipients would grow and the dreams that they were already having about the packages that would arrive in the mail, packages that would result in meals ranging from summer salads to winter vegetable stews, all neatly enclosed in a small brown envelope, its contents waiting to burst forth into life.
One thing was clear: seeds, and the packages containing them that arrive on our doorstep, hold our dreams and our future. And it is for this reason that, in the dregs of a cold January night, they fill my head.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.