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Spreading My Seed

Suchilquitongo (“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 plantings.

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) 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, or call (207) 861-3901; and Seeds of Change, 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.

Think spring!

—Tom Nattell

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