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Germination of Millions

Sticks of forsythia bloom bright yellow in a blue glass vase on the mantle above the wood-burning stove. Outside, crocuses poke yellow petals through the cover of last fall’s dried leaves. Worms gather in writhing reproductive masses in the warm cores of compost heaps. Sunset approaches 6 o’clock. Spring is inevitable, as the calendar sheds its days towards the equinox, March 20. It is during the month of March that I select seeds for my garden, planting fantasies and hopes for future harvests.

Back in early December, seed and gardening catalogs began landing in my mailbox. Over 20 of them eventually arrived. Flipping through their colorful Gardens of Eden illustrations gives me a bit of a lift in the low-light days of winter. These bright volumes update me on new varieties of plants as well as the latest in soil-building and pest-control products. Some of the catalogs have interesting sidebars about cultivation ideas and important agricultural issues. I always hold on to the catalogs I order from because they often contain useful information for nurturing their seeds into fruitful plants.

While I enjoy my winter seed-catalog fantasies, I have to snap back to the fact that my space for cultivation measures in square feet and not acres. I have to limit what I grow. While I don’t have space to grow corn, Hubbard squash or mammoth pumpkins, I can cultivate a wide range of salad greens, herbs, edible flowers and tomatoes. I try to select plants that require little space, can tolerate cool weather and can be harvested a little at a time. All of the food I grow is eaten raw.

Before filling out any seed orders, I check the contents of my simple seed box, a recycled wooden clementine box with a couple dividers added. Plants did not evolve seeds that expire in one year. While the rate of germination will go down over time, seed packets often last me two to three years. Even the smallest packets contain numbers of seeds far beyond what I could ever use in one year. Using seeds over more than one growing season has helped keep my seed costs down.

In deciding what seeds to buy, I check into the agricultural philosophy of seed companies as well as the range of varieties they offer. I am also interested in companies that sell heirloom varieties and organic seeds. With agribusiness moving to market genetically modified plants that produce sterile seeds, the availability of a diverse seed inventory is important to me, and I support seed sellers who contribute to it.

I am also interested in the price of the seeds I buy. Most seed sellers will give you some idea of the number of seeds in their packets. Differences in price for the same seed by different companies may reflect differences in the number of seeds packaged. If the seeds are organic, they will also tend to cost more.

While most of the seeds I will plant this year will be from past years, I have ordered a number of seeds from three seed vendors: Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seeds of Change. All three offer a wide range of vegetable, flower and herb seeds. They also have a shared concern that genetic diversity is important, and refuse to knowingly carry genetically modified seed stocks. They all offer organic seeds and varieties that are open-field pollinated. They also offer products for growing seeds, enhancing the soil, and pest management as well as select books on agricultural practices geared toward the backyard sodbuster.

Fedco Seeds (P.O. Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903-0520; (207) 873-7333; www.fed coseeds.com) is a cooperative, jointly owned by its workers and consumers. According to the Maine company, “profit is not our primary goal.” Fedco actively supports sustainable agriculture, and has joined the Campaign for the Living Seed, a project aimed at food security through support for local farmers, seed saving and genetic diversity, educating youth about the importance of seeds, and actively opposing genetically engineered varieties. Fedco provides detailed data on each variety it sells, including a set of codes that size seed suppliers into groups ranging from small farmers to multinational corporations. It also clearly codes varieties that are patented. Variety descriptions are often laced with historic information, interesting bits of trivia and the location of the farm providing the seed. Fedco’s smallest seed packets mainly range from 80 cents to $1.20.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds (184 Foss Hill Road, RR 1 Box 2580 Albion, ME 04910-9731; (207) 437-4395; www.johnnyseeds.com) is celebrating its 30th year of seed selling. At the company’s certified organic farm in Maine, seeds “depend on composting, cover crops and other classic organic techniques that build soil, enhance biodiversity and produce healthier food.” Ten percent of the company’s profits are donated to charities that promote gardening. Johnny’s offers a wide range of seeds, accompanied by text boxes of information, including germination, planting, disease-prevention and harvesting tips. Its offerings in herbs and greens are particularly robust. Edible flowers are identified. Johnny’s smallest seed packets are in the $2-$3 range.

Seeds of Change (P.O. Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM 87592-1500; (888) 762-7333; www.seedsofchange.com) sells only certified organic seeds that have been produced through pollination in open fields (no hybrids). Seeds of Change operates a research farm and garden outside of Santa Fe, growing thousands of varieties as part of a larger effort to maintain a healthy, biologically diverse seed stock. Being located in the Southwest, this seed seller also provides information on the water demands of the varieties sold. Seeds of Change has a more extensive collection of rare seeds available through its Deep Diversity catalog, which you can find at the company’s Web site. Greens, chilies, herbs, beans, tomatoes and sunflowers are specialties, with many heirloom varieties offered. Small seed packets run mainly from $2.49-$2.79.

So, there are a few good seed sources to check out if a spring garden is in your future. And now, I’ve got to go and get some seeds germinating. 

—Tom Nattell


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