What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and the community in response to the theme: “seed.” These stories first appeared in the MOFGA Stories segment in the spring 2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.
I was born and raised in what was referred to as Spanish Harlem in New York City. Between the ages of 4 and 5 years old, I lived with my abuela (grandmother) in Puerto Rico. I remember being on the airplane with my abuela, looking out of the window and seeing the island of Puerto Rico on approach to the airport. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the dark ridges of the cordillera (mountains), and the small colorful houses dotting the island surrounded by lush greenery. What a beautiful carpet of green!
My second cousins were my playmates during this time. We went on daily adventures running through the small family farm, playing in and around the banana trees, breadfruit palm, avocado trees and coffee plants and digging shelled almonds from the dirt road at the base of a gnarled old almendro (almond tree) planted by the Spaniards a century or more before. I remember cracking the almond shells open on a large rock with another smaller rock in hand, gorging ourselves on the flavorful, fresh almonds and playing hide-and-seek in the guava hedge.
The guava hedge holds the strongest of memories for me. All of my senses succumb to this memory. I see my abuela standing to my right, a slender, tanned woman wearing a simple cotton dress she made herself. Abuela knew more about indigenous Taino planting methods and medicinal plants than I will ever know. There she is: teaching me which guavas were ripe and which were not. I can feel the warm tropical air as it gently touches my skin standing in the early morning sun. I can smell the magnificent, almost indescribable fragrance of a wall of ripe guavas as the fruit warms in the sun. The scent of green leaves and ripening guavas intertwined in the air. My grandmother hands me a guava — it’s enormous in my small hands. I bite into it: crunch goes the outer coating of the guava, a beautiful light tropical green. Just below the surface there is a very light-colored layer then … there is the unmistakable pink color of a guava. Grainy, hard, juicy, ripe, sweet and delicious! Juice runs down my chin, down my arm. Abuela smiles. This is the moment I realize that plants are part of me and I part of them.
The seed was planted.
My daughter, Meadow, is fortunate enough to be an “Unschooler.” It’s not my preferred term for our form of homeschooling, but it is useful in that it quickly sums up the general philosophy: imagine self-directed, joy-based and interest-led home education. What a beautiful way for us to take in the world. I have spent over 10 years removing a grass lawn and replacing it with a sizable organic garden and a mini meadow. Trees have sent their roots deep, squash plants have sent their vines high (and told me who’s boss), native flowers abound, and chard leaves are as tall as a 6 year old.
Most of this sanctuary has been planted by seed. This is our classroom: it just happens to have no walls. Growing from seed is a labor of love, one we partake in year round. Take a look at those enticing little paper packets and you will notice seed starting is not reserved for the spring semester — I mean season. True learning doesn’t cease because of summer vacation. I begin planting in our little greenhouse during winter and my daughter plays alongside me amongst the dried brown stalks of last summer, unknowingly covering her little wool suit in clingy seed heads. When her curiosity is piqued, she comes close and asks (demands) to get involved and do it herself. In that moment, she has applied to Mother Nature Academy and registered for Seed Sowing 101. We tune into the needs of each plant, the birds, the insects and the soil. We ask questions, make mistakes, get our hands dirty and discover by doing.
This path of exploration leads us to our local library and then to small nearby farms, searching for more. We become members of the organic CSA farm at the end of our road. We consider budgets, priorities, needs vs. wants. We weigh our harvests, make comparisons, and ask how far food has to travel before it reaches us. We research the history of the precious land we stand on and call home. Small, local, organic seed companies become the new “assignments.” Biodiversity, habitat and herbalism are the new “class themes.” Weather and climate, water sources, geology and food justice are the new “study units.” We become the Earth’s students and we are willing to work hard for her, so we can become teaching assistants for the next generation. A seed of curiosity and wonder has been planted. Not only for our children, but for our community who can’t help but notice what we are up to.
We reverently collect the garden’s seeds and package them for our free seed and plant stand every week — because this knowledge and these seeds are worth sharing. The garden has yet to pull out a worksheet or a pop quiz. Every school “subject” lies within a solitary seed. All of life’s lessons are there. Let’s all show up, be present and listen.
Hudson Valley, New York
When you stabilize a hybrid variety you essentially finish the breeding work and end up with a similar or identical open-pollinated variety by growing out a large population of that variety and selecting the plants that are identical to the original hybrid. Repeat for seven years or until all plants are true to type.
My first such breeding project was Matchbox hot pepper and it behaved with Mendelian perfection, unravelling quite neatly. My second project was far more humbling.
The hybrid hot pepper, Chilipeno, bred by Peter Berkop of Berkop Seeds in the Czechoslovakian area, stopped being produced in the late 1990s. It was my favorite variety, so I stocked up on the seed which I grew for a few years, savoring its thick walls and long chili shape and great flavor. After growing it for five years, I started to worry about its germination rate, and I knew I had to do the breeding work or lose the variety.
The first year, I grew out 180 plants. I expected about a tenth of them to resemble the parent, Chilipeno. None of them did, not even close. I was puzzled. I grew them again the next year with similar results. So I gave up, but decided to do some research. Maybe a more complex breeding process was used in the original creation of the hybrid.
The seed sat for a few years, until I realized that it was 10 years old and it was now or never. I grew the seed out a third time and got a high percentage of plants that actually resembled the parent. So I saved from those plants and continued selecting for six more years. By year eight, most of the plants looked like the parent. I was encouraged. When I tasted them in fall — a process of tasting the flesh and ribs of one fruit off each plant, detecting the heat on any part of the tongue that was not on fire, then dousing the heat with a bite of cheese — I found that I had lost the heat. None of the plants had any heat!
I went back two years in my saved breeding stock and to the prior year and grew out both lots of seed. I got the heat back. By year 10, I was close. I had shape, yield, and mild heat and flavor. I figured I planned to grow the variety for a few more years to make sure it was stable, that all plants were true to type.
That winter my house burned. I found my select stock seed floating in a bowl of ash and water. The paper seams were splitting. It was 20 below. We had to get the canning jars of food into the sauna where we could keep them from freezing. I didn’t know what I did with the seed packets until a few days later when I found them lined on an unscathed desk. They had freeze dried.
That year, while we built our sweet new house, I grew the seed again, not sure if it was even viable. I also grew the previous year’s stock seed just in case. But the fire seed did germinate, all of it. And the peppers were all like Chilipeno. I named the variety Dulcinea, because it was sweet-fleshed and fiery inside, how I imagined Don Quixote’s sweet love to be.
But I lost the incentive to introduce it to the seed world. It is my quiet little troublemaker of a hot pepper, still my favorite.
All my life, my mother had a garden. Her suburban yards were usually about a quarter acre, with house, but she always made sure some of our food came from those gardens. Usually tomatoes, peas and other easy-to-grow vegetables. In our first yard, there were some old fruit trees, and she made the most of them — sour cherries became pies, mealy golden delicious apples went into apple crisp. She took advantage of the “edges” of our yard that weren’t ours, but no one was using — raspberries went into jams, she planted watercress in the stream between our yard and the neighbors’ that went into our fresh salad. A later house had her planting edamame, which I’d never seen growing before. She taught me about companion planting, putting marigolds around to keep off bugs. And always, she had flowers in her garden, especially her favorites — irises. With the seeds of the food she grew, she planted the seeds inside me of wanting to grow a garden.
I lived for many decades in a large city. I tried to plant some small things on my fire escape, and once saw a tomato worm magically appear on my dill — in the midst of the city! And for a few years, I had a raspberry bush in a grout bucket on the fire escape, until I could give it away to my brother who had a yard.
When I finally moved to Maine 15 years ago, and had room to plant, I laid out a garden and planted a few fruit trees, and found to my sorrow that there were too many other trees to have a full-blown orchard. Still, I have peaches and apple trees and some raspberries. I’ve gotten a bit too old and creaky in the meantime to do a lot of heavy lifting, but I do grow some summer vegetables, and garlic (enough to give away to friends and the local soup kitchen). And in my mother’s memory, I always have irises around my house, including a few I took from her last garden. Thank you, Mom!
Among the sunflowers last summer, watching a family of song sparrows navigate their branches, foraging and feasting on the soft, invertebrate bodies of caterpillars, I was also lunching among the blossoms.
The mother (I confess a presumption) was only slightly larger than her children by July but her calm, exacting movements clearly demonstrated her honed skills, deftly capturing and whacking one insect after another as her protégés fumbled along after her. She would patiently offer her quarry to them, letting them squirm as their caterpillars squirmed, letting them learn, slowly, the quick grace of slipping an insect straight down a throat.
I’m sure I did very important things that day.
Critical things, even.
That dance of life and death, of learning and becoming, those breathless moments among the blossoms: that is all I remember, all told.
What will I remember of this day?
Do good work, yes.
Also, slow down and look around.
Many are the gifts seeds bring to this world.
Naples, New York
I can’t think of a prettier seed than Scarlet Runner beans. A substantial seed in size, it has attention-grabbing colors, black speckled with red. A friend on Vinalhaven gifted me some, years ago. Her seeds were from the previous summer’s vines, and so on back over many years. I had admired them in bloom and asked what they were. Her Scarlet Runners were started indoors before hitting fresh air around Memorial Day. After they started growing in their trellised planter, she would start a second crop so she’d have flowers in bloom to last the whole season. The seed pods were harvested, dried and shelled, and the beans stored in glass jars to await next year.
It is grown more as an ornamental vine, the bright red flowers are pretty — to my mind, they rival the beauty of sweet peas (but without their fragrance, so I grow both alongside each other). The beans are edible when young, although I grow other pole beans for that.
What else but Scarlet Runner would I offer my grandson as his first seeds to be planted in our Vinalhaven garden? He watched them over the growing season, delighting that what he poked into holes in the dirt emerged in shoots. He made a kind of web with strings between all the poles, not believing the highest-up ones I encouraged him to include would ever hold something that tall. It was a nice gesture, I thought, that he wanted to decorate those poles and strings with the addition of small American flags, already anticipating July Fourth, Vinalhaven’s most important holiday. As summer weather descended, he’d water the quickly climbing vines and was surprised by the height those plants achieved, and the way tendrils found their way to string, wrapping on. Then there was the surprise of red flowers and the green beans that followed, growing into long pods that finally turned brown. And inside? Seeds like the ones he’d started with.
I appreciate a lesson my Scarlet Runners offer: the reminder we can have some self-sufficiency with our seed gathering and saving. While I savor seed catalogs and am a yearly customer, open to experimenting, I am fiercely loyal to the seeds I have grown and collected. Over the winter, I keep a jar of Scarlet Runner beans in view in my kitchen, I guess because the seeds are as ornamental as the flowers. They also remind me of last summer’s harvest and my optimistic hopes for this coming summer: that it will be a good one for growing things, and for time spent in-person again with grandchildren, and for visiting friends and their gardens.
As for the flag idea, we were disappointed that a regularly visiting red squirrel held some pre-season parades of its own, some of which we were present to watch: the squirrel running across our deck waving a flag held in its mouth. We came across discarded flags all summer, wherever they’d finally been dropped, left sadly in a condition no longer worthy of a parade or garden.
Vinalhaven, Maine and Leverett, Massachusetts
Ode to the Seeds
Poring over catalogs, names of plants bring your beauty to mind.
Breathing in, I catch the memory of your full-grown perfume and see your green, pulsing skin glistening with morning dew.
Your ending is your beginning; so many different shapes and sizes, hard little nuggets of mystery, such a profound gift …
How can all that you will be fit in that tiny, hard seed coat? You amaze and thrill me!
I am honored to help you spring to Life,
Watching as you unfold, thrusting your cotyledons skyward and your roots earthward.
Thank you little seeds, for the hope and promise that lies nascent within each of you.
We are all seeds of a sort with hope and promise also within us,
Yearning to be watered, fed and brought into the Light
To grow, thrive and fulfill our own destiny
Alongside all of you, partners on this precious planet.
May we never forget our reciprocal relationship, we wouldn’t be here without you.
Thank you for sustaining us,
Ellen B. Libby
Within days of the remaining winter’s snow having left my gardens, I lift up last year’s still green Hellebore leaves and, lo and behold, tiny new seedlings are already popping up under the mother plant. They’re as early a seedling as any perennial in my gardens. If I had gathered the ripe seed last year, stored them and planted them now, they wouldn’t sprout until next year. They need stratification — a warm moist summer followed by a cold winter to sprout. So the ones I do gather I fool into thinking that they’ve been through that — about four or five weeks in a baggie of moist potting mix at room temperature, then several weeks in my refrigerator. Then they’ll sprout when planted in the ground. Out of the 60 or so species and varieties of perennial seeds that I do save, about a third require stratifying.
I gather seeds from perennials as soon as they ripen fully, dry them in the house and seal them up in marked containers. Aquilegia (columbine) are among the first to ripen in the spring, others at all different times during spring, summer and fall. Vernonia (ironweed) and Ligularia fischeri are the last ones I gather, ripening in November.
To grow plants from seeds I have never seen, except perhaps in books, and watch them come into bloom sometimes a year and a half later — that’s a treat.
I’m glad that vegetable seeds don’t require any kind of stratifying, that might drive me crazy. Even after 60 years with “one foot in the furrow,” I still get a great pleasure seeing a row of string beans or a hill of squash cracking the ground where their seeds were just planted a few days before. The next day they’ll be showing a touch of green in the morning and opening their first leaves in the evening.
Thoreau wrote: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
North Saco, Maine
Two years ago, I was given a small handful of beans, much larger and rounder than I had seen before, and lavender-colored with dark splotches. They were beautiful! These unnamed beans had been found amongst Anasazi ruins in northern Arizona by a Native American friend of a friend, tucked inside a little clay pot covered with a dried piece of animal hide. A western university looked at them and ran some dating tests — they estimated the beans were 1,500 years old. After all that time, there were now three of us holding these ancient beans.
I wanted to grow them out. At our elevation, though, we usually have a few frosty nights even in the summer months, so I planted four of the beans in a half barrel set on an old flatbed wheelbarrow that could be brought inside. The remaining beans I held in reserve in case my efforts failed. And all through the summer, I moved the wheelbarrow into the garage each night and back out again in the morning.
They grew. The flowers were bright red and came early at three to four weeks, and the plants eventually reached about 18 inches tall. Dark green fuzzy pods were finally set at about eight to nine weeks, plumped up, and eventually dried out. From this small planting I harvested 156 new beans. Most of them (136) looked just like the parent beans, light purple with thick dark flecks … but 20 had the reverse coloration, nearly black with lavender flecks.
Some have wondered what these beans taste like, or how they cook up, but I haven’t sampled them yet. I’m still building my supply, and I haven’t even figured out their rightful name. Soon, though, I hope to share them with other bean lovers and growers. Something this gorgeous and so long-forgotten needs to be in many more hands.
Soda Springs, Idaho
From seed to soup, an ode to my beloved onion: I love everything about onions. I love to plant them, to grow them, to harvest them, to eat them. But they are a challenge in every way. I direct seed them, because I can get into my garden in the first week of April. They’re hard to plant, though. The seeds are so tiny that three, four, five seeds at a time fly out of my fingers, which means I have to thin them later on. Even thinning is difficult, because if you don’t wait to a certain point of their growth, they break off at ground level instead of being pulled out, roots and all. That means that they grow back and you have to thin again! Darn!
They are tricky to grow. They need lots of water to germinate, need to be weeded all the time. They need daylight — and plenty of it — to bulb up. And they need to lay down to dry in the field for a couple of weeks, then be pulled to dry on the racks for a couple of weeks, then be braided and hung for the winter in a cool, dry place.
Some onions are long-storage onions, others medium-storage and others don’t store well at all. There are summer or bunching or even perennial onions. There are ramps and leeks and shallots and scallions. I love their shapes: torpedo, blocky, flattened, pearl, globe. And their colors: yellow, white, brown, bronze, red, and purple.
I just love the way an onion feels in the palm of my hand.
Finally, oh finally, I get to eat them — fresh in a salad or caramelized in an omelet or sauteed in a soup. I eat an onion a day. They can taste mild, strong, sweet, tangy or spicy. Most of all, their taste is divinely earthy. When I eat onions, I can hear my immune system thanking me. When I slice, chop or dice them, when I sauté, roast or eat them raw, my tears are those of joy.
I step outside and the cold bites my nose. I take a deep breath and watch my exhale billow up into the eternal blue. It’s a crisp nip that penetrates my lungs in a way that no lower temperature can. Today is the day after snow has fallen and a strong wind blows around me. I think, “the seeds are sleeping, but well on their way,”and set out to go tag along on their journey.
I wander over hills, seeing bare branches swaying, all of yesterday’s snow blowing off their limbs in sparkling swirls. I walk across a field with tufts of brown grass poking through the white surface. Dead goldenrod and wild carrot stalks still stand tall above the snow. They still have some spare seeds, but most of them are already dispersed beneath the snow. Their time has come and gone, but there are still some seeds traveling on.
Down I go, to the trickling stream hidden beneath the snow. Just beyond it stands a scattering of trees, shedding their seeds. Birch seeds have been freed from their catkins, loosened by the winds. Hundreds of tiny seeds settle in the shallow gully made by the stream, free to let the winds and waters carry them away.
I feel a gust of wind gathering behind me and see it stir the snow and seeds. They dance across the surface, on their way to a new place. I want to dance with them, to be as alive as they are, even in their dormancy. So I do, just me and the birch seeds, dancing with the winds by the frozen stream.
Hollyhock seeds were the first I ever received in a swap. I would have been in early elementary school then, and I remember feeling happy to be on an outing with my father. Some of the details of the day are now memories lost to time, but what I do remember is a cozy gathering in someone’s living room. Folks (maybe some of you!) brought the seeds they had saved, or extras from past seed orders, to trade and share by the fireplace.
I carefully considered my options about what seeds to bring home to the garden. Flowers sparked my interest at the time, and I recall that I carefully wrote “Mixed color — hollyhocks” on the little seed packet into which I dropped a few seeds. Likely someone had saved them themselves and wasn’t sure of the colors or varieties.
As far as I can tell looking back, this was an early version of what is now MOFGA’s annual Seed Swap & Scion Exchange (we hope you’ll join us this spring!). Now an event with hundreds of visitors, I remember that gathering as one or two dozen gardeners and farmers. The amount of seed and scionwood to trade has grown with the amount of attendees, but at that early event and more recent events, the tables were piled high with an abundance of options to consider and share (there are just more tables these days).
Though so much larger in scale now, the swap retains some of the same feelings for me now as then — the excitement of finding a new treasure for the garden, the joy of gathering together to share the abundance we have, the fun of being with loved ones as we plan for the coming growing season.
The seeds I brought home that year were tucked into the garden (though I don’t remember what colors they were!). The seed packet I brought home that day lingered in our seed box for many years, getting reused for various purposes before being retired. I try, every so often, to plant some hollyhocks, though I don’t have much luck with them! I attend a seed swap every year.
Mt. Vernon, Maine