Dreams of gardening

My first seed catalog arrived in the mail before Christmas. In spite of the snow which blankets my garden beds, I can almost feel the warm sun of spring as I leaf through the pages of red tomatoes, spicy peppers, exotic purple carrots and shiny eggplants. I carefully fold over the corner of the pages featuring seeds of varieties I might want to consider growing this year. The garden of my wish list is many times the size of my actual garden. Growing things in my mind is always an easier task than the real thing.

My fantasy garden has no such things as cut worms, cabbage loopers or flea beetles. The sun always shines and the rain is adequate. Quack grass has been vanquished and creeping jenny simply disappears. In my winter dreams, I seem to be much younger and am able to work much harder and longer than in real life.

Fortunately for me, my checkbook usually puts a reality filter on my seed ordering.

I am still eating cabbage, potatoes, carrots, squash, pickles and canned tomatoes from last summer’s garden. There’s still a bit of frozen broccoli and packages of green beans and snap peas. Last spring I sorted through my wish list. I eliminated things I wish would grow here, but I know from experience won’t. I cut out the things there is no room for. My garden still produced generously.

Seeds, baby animals, mushrooms seem to appear from nowhere, fruit trees that produce year after year with little or no care even in the woods, grasses that spread from their roots reproduce and multiply with our help and often in spite of us, all speak of nature’s abundance.

Seeds are such amazing things. A seed packet of an heirloom variety of tomatoes may only contain 25 seeds. When dumped into the palm of your hand, they almost disappear. They look so little, I usually plant all of them. Really? Do I really want 25 tomato plants of one variety? Even if all of them don’t grow, I have far more seedlings than my small plot can contain. Each of those plants can produce 20-30 tomatoes, depending on the year and the variety. A generous return from a seed half the size of a sesame seed.

In 2005 Monsanto, one of the largest agricultural seed companies in the world, bought Seminis and several other large garden and vegetable seed companies. Monsanto now is the world’s largest seed company. Not only do they control the sales of their brand name genetically modified field crops, but almost half of all the vegetable seeds planted both by commercial vegetable growers and home gardeners in the world. Not only do they own the rights to grow and sell specific varieties they and their subsidiaries have developed, but they own the trademarked names of heritage varieties such as better boy, beefmaster, and early girl tomatoes, corno verde peppers, braveheart lettuce and many, many more. Their trademark means, even though they do not own the seed, they collect for the use of those names on every packet of seed sold regardless of who grew or packaged the seed.

It may seem that who sells the seed is of little concern for those of us who grow a few tomato plants. The problem arises when a large company which sells seeds around the world drops varieties which are specifically adapted to small areas of production. Those varieties cease to be available and may disappear altogether.

I have grown old varieties of vegetables. Some of them lost popularity for good reasons. Many have little disease resistance. Others yield poorly, at least in my garden. Some heritage varieties, however, are far more flavorful than modern varieties. Some have higher yields and are disease resistant, but ripen more slowly or are very tender and bruise easily. They might be better suited to being eaten right off the vine than picked and transported across the country in a refrigerated truck.

For thousands of years, gardeners and farmers saved the best seeds from their gardens and farms. They shared with their neighbors.The varieties that evolved adapted to the place they were grown. Diverse and special varieties were grown and kept all around the world, creating a wide genetic diversity of food crops. Modern plant breeding has made use of these heirloom seeds as parent stocks in developing modern seed strains and hybrids. If most of the farmers and gardeners in the world, however, buy seed from the same company, what happens to the diversity necessary to replace varieties as they succumb to new diseases and insects?

The good news is that seed banks which store rare and old varieties have been established. But seeds need to be planted and harvested occasionally to retain their viability. Maintaining seed banks is an expensive and risky business. The world’s few large seed banks seem to ignore the admonition against putting all one’s eggs in one basket.

A growing number of gardeners have begun saving their own seeds. Seed libraries have sprung up enabling members to share seeds with one another. Small seed companies and seed breeders are popping up around the country. Companies like Johnny’s Seeds in Maine, High Mowing Seeds in Vermont, Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, and tiny regional companies like my friends at Prairie Road Seeds in LaMoure, ND, are growing and selling seeds to gardeners who are looking for tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and sweet watermelons that will ripen in North Dakota.

Happy garden dreaming. May all your seeds germinate.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains