The power of seeds

Many ways to make the magic happen

There is nothing like a display of seed packets. Its appearance in any store, sometimes while there is still snow on the ground, reminds us things will get green again. Change is coming, and we need to think about what we want and how we will make it grow.

I bought a few packets of seeds at the Fort Wayne Home & Garden Show this year, especially at our Allen County Master Gardener booth. These seeds come from the display gardens at the extension office and from the gardens of the Master Gardeners themselves; volunteers painstakingly package and label the seeds for sale. Proceeds support the program, so even before you plant the seeds, you’ve helped something grow.

Indoor seed starting time – mid-March if you’re starting seeds about eight weeks before our last frost date – rolled around, and I sorted through the packets again. Somehow, I’d forgotten to buy tomato and pepper seeds, so I added that to my to-do list.

On the way home after a difficult day, I trudged through the door of a store that’s generally more about function than visual appeal. It echoed the gray outside. Sighing, I grabbed a basket and looked around. There they were – racks loaded with colorful, beautiful seed packets amid a sea of yard waste bags and power trimmers. What should have been a five-minute stop for tomato and pepper seeds turned into at least 20 minutes of deliberation. Some were labeled organic; some were not. One brand had “Non-GMO” at the top of its display; others did not. You have your Better Boy and your Beefsteak, your California Wonder sweet bell peppers and Anaheim chilies. Oh, and look at these herbs over here … and the flowers on the other side … where could I plant these?

So I went in for two packets and came out with about five, but I also felt much better than when I came in. Such is the power of seeds – potential for beauty and nourishment, intention to grow and mind-blowing science wrapped up in something the size of a pinhead, give or take.

You can find seeds in big-box retail stores and independent garden centers. And, of course, there are companies across the country who specialize in seeds and send out their catalogs every year, starting in the depth of winter. Perfectly reasonable gardeners curl up by the fire and page through these full-color catalogs, realize they’ve dog-eared every other page and have to set them aside. The curmudgeonly main character in the “Crankshaft” comic strip has been known to dance a little jig at the mailbox when he gets a seed catalog. That’s what seeds can do.

Public libraries, including Allen County Public Library’s Little Turtle branch, are tapping into this power – and the move toward eating backyard-locally – with seed libraries. Patrons “check out” envelopes or small bags of seed for no charge the way they would a book or video. They plant the seeds, tend the garden and reap the harvest. They let some of the plants go to seed, save the seeds and bring them to the library, where someone else checks them out … and the cycle continues.

Seed libraries generally circulate heirloom seeds. “Heirloom” means the seeds you save from, say, a tomato will produce the same kind of tomato when you plant it. It “breeds true.”

A hybrid, however, is a tomato of a different color, so to speak. Modern hybrid cultivars rarely breed true from saved seed, cautions B. Rosie Lerner, extension consumer horticulturalist for Purdue University, in an extension newsletter. “To get that disease-resistant tomato or frilly double petunia, two or more plants with desirable characteristics were crossbred,” she said.

Due to the recombination of different genes (is anyone else having high school biology flashbacks?), the seed of a hybrid plant will produce, well, who knows what. The plants could be quite different from the parent plant and from one another, and they are likely not to perform as well or taste as good.

A Master Gardener classmate gave me some seeds from an heirloom Greek bell pepper years ago, which had come to her through a Greek sister-in-law. I planted them and managed to save some seeds from that crop for the next season, but that is the extent of my seed-saving experience. I know Food Not Lawns Fort Wayne, with a couple of other local organizations, held its second annual seed swap in March. Some seed swapping happens online. One source of information (and seeds) is the Seed Savers Exchange, which has been around since 1975: exchange.seedsavers.org.

Regardless of what kind of seeds you hold in your hand, and no matter where you got them, a tiny miracle – one that you can help make happen – is waiting inside each one.

First appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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