(“Place of Flowers”) is one of the most agriculturally productive
towns in Mexico. Located in the southern state of Oaxaca,
its rich alluvial soils, water from the Rio Atoyac and benign
climate make it possible for its farmers to grow three crops
a year. When I arrived in the town square, the road crew for
Alfredo El Pulpo (the Octopus), a touring pop singer and musical
act, was busily setting up a stage and tent in the square
for an evening performance. El Pulpo posters were scattered
on walls and power poles throughout the town.
I had come to this small town of about 5,000 people (mainly
Zapotec Indians) with my son Noah to visit their community
museum and hike to a nearby archeological site that provides
testament to the thousands of years these rich soils have
born fruitful harvests. I inquired in the square about access
to the local museum and eventually met up with Fernando Martinez,
who said the museum was closed, but that he could get us the
key. As we discussed what it would take to get into the museum,
I pulled out of my pocket some tiny objects that, for a short
bit of time that day, would make me more popular than El Pulpo.
What I pulled out of my pocket were seeds.
Word of my tiny treasures quickly spread. A small crowd gathered
around us as I revealed the collection of tomato, cucumber,
gourd, and herb seeds stashed in my pocket. I announced to
those who gathered that I was interested in local chili seeds
and seeing the town’s museum. I also made it clear that I
would not sell my seeds, but would only trade them for chili
seeds. Soon a number of people were rushing home for seeds
to trade, while another guy hopped on a well-worn bicycle,
peddling off to get the key that would let us into the museum.
In this intensely agricultural culture, seeds have a power
that is far greater than their size might indicate. But seeds
have a lot of amazing power regardless of culture. Upon such
small things our lives depend.
We did get into the museum that day, but only after the seed
exchange took place amid a gaggle of spectators that made
the bartering look like a hot game of chance was going down.
The pair of gringos with a pocket full of seeds became an
impromptu comedy act as Noah and I linguistically stumbled
through our limited Spanish vegetable vocabulary and entertained
questions from onlookers.
I got thinking about that seed-swapping scene in Suchilquiltongo
as I was going through my box of seeds, preparing early windowsill
plantings for future fair-weather gardens. I still have a
few seeds from that day, packed in their original square of
plastic ripped from a bag.
Well, I am now busy germinating seeds, including more chili
seeds from Mexico. In the context of George W.’s war in Iraq,
seed planting seems somewhat surreal to me this year. Fortunately,
seeds also seem to exemplify a resilience built into life,
continuously demonstrated as simple seeds rise from difficult
surroundings to become a tomato or cucumber or gourd or small
bush of lemon balm or other source of nutrition. Planting
involves a certain degree of faith and hope coupled with a
commitment of future time to nurture nutritious edibles and
the soil from which they rise. Now is the time for gathering
seeds for spring planting.
The diversity of seeds available to gardeners these days is
truly astounding. With so many seeds, deciding which to choose
becomes more difficult. A few terms have become particularly
important in describing contributions to this seed cornucopia.
Organic: Seeds sold as organic have to be produced by organic
gardening methods without the use of chemical fertilizers
or pesticides. They also can’t be genetically modified or
treated with any chemicals. Organic seeds have to be certified
under the USDA’s organic labeling rules that went into full
effect last year. Using organic seeds is an important step
in growing your own organic veggies.
Open-pollinated: This term refers to the natural process of
pollination that occurs predominantly through the action of
wind, insects and water. Through these forces of fertility,
pollen grains are exchanged between flowers, botanical sex
is consummated and seeds are produced. Open-pollinated varieties
also work well if you want to save your own seeds for future
Heirloom: These open-pollinated varieties were passed down
through generations of farmers prior to the rise in dominance
of big seed companies and limited catalogue offerings. They
often are of European descent and represent varieties that
were preferred for their vigor, productivity and taste. Heirloom
varieties help to preserve the genetic diversity in plants,
and often are particularly hardy due to their evolution and
survival in growing conditions without chemical additives.
Traditional: These are open-pollinated varieties that have
been cultivated for generations by native peoples from around
the world. Traditional varieties are often quite hardy, highly
nutritious and resistant to pests and drought. Many of the
varieties of chili grown in Suchilquitongo and other locations
in the Mexican state of Oaxaca are traditional, having been
passed down through families for hundreds of years.
If you’re looking for seeds that fit into these four categories,
here are a few seed sellers worth checking out: FEDCO Seeds
(end of season was April 4, but get on their mailing list)
www.fedcoseeds.com or call (207) 873-7333 (Honest Weight Food
Co-op sells FEDCO seeds and has a great deal on year-old seeds);
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.Johnnyseeds.com or call (207)
861-3901; and Seeds of Change, www.seedsofchange.com or call
(888) 762-7333. If you’re in need of a plot to plant your
seeds, contact Capital District Community Gardens at 274-8685.