My first attempt at starting seeds was a disaster. Inexperienced yet determined to stuff a few guerrilla vegetables in an ornamental border in front our rented home, I bought a kit that seemed simple enough and carefully chose a few seed packets from the rack. It felt deliciously easy—the 50-cent packets would sprout in a few days and, with patience, I’d be plucking dinner from just out the front door.
Many of the seeds did nothing. Those that did germinate died shortly after doing so, even though I gave the whole lot a spritz every few hours. My tomatoes, my lettuce, my basil and parsley—they all disappeared back into the ether from which they’d sprung, and in an afternoon I lost my faith in seeds. I went to the nursery and bought a few pots of this and that, plucked them in the ground and wiped my hands of the whole affair.
The second time was unintentional. I was teaching preschool to a group of five- and six-year-olds, and one of the parents brought a packet of bean seeds in one day remarking, “I thought you could do that sprouting bean seeds in a bag thing.” So, under my skeptical direction, the group wrapped the seeds up in damp paper towels and sealed them in Ziploc bags that we taped to the window. I was quite indifferent to the project, but as the seeds sprouted, the kids went wild. They would run into the room in the morning to see whether their seed had sprung. They asked for more.
So I found myself standing again in front of the rack. We had made a list: corn (for this I cheated and grabbed a handful out of the popcorn jar), blue flowers, white flowers, beans (of course), and leaves. This last one I interpreted as lettuce, and I grabbed a pack of peas on a whim. Not to be fooled again, I breezed past the grow kits and grabbed a bag of potting mix.
The children carefully filled egg cartons and yogurt pots with soil and placed a seed in the center of each. We set the containers on the windowsill and watered them with spray bottles to avoid overflow, and that was that.
In a week, many of the seeds had sprouted. In two weeks, they all had. By week three and four, some had become so vigorous we had to transplant them into a larger pots. By this point, the whole windowsill was lined with the lush green of new life, and it thrilled all of us.
Looking back, I can trace my path into horticulture to this experience. I didn’t register in a program the next day, but our project marked the moment when I first began to believe in seeds, when their simple powers first mesmerized me.
When I did eventually come to formally study horticulture, I learned right away why our impulsive nursery had succeeded so phenomenally. In the greenhouses at school, we managed the germination of our seed trays by providing, along with optimum exposure to sunlight, bottom heat and regular moisture. The preschool seedlings sat on a southwest-facing windowsill right above a line of radiators, and the children’s eager spraying was our mist system.
The thrill has not faded. Each seed that sprouts astonishes me—delicate ambassadors, links between the tangible and the imagined. As I lay them down on a bed of moistened potting soil, or nestle them in the raw earth, I perform a spring rite of faith and continuance. My palm, holding a weightless pile, senses the phantom heft—giant squash fruits, pounds of juicy tomatoes, bouquets of leaves—that is somehow hidden within these silent specks.
Yet seeds are always and only a beginning. Their tiny packages hold just enough nourishment for a root and a pair of leaves. Without sunlight, water and nutrients, nothing will follow that first short burst into action. So it seems there must be a pinch of collusion tucked inside each seed packet: on the gardener’s end, the exchange of a few weekly chores for nourishment; on the seed’s end, the exchange of body parts for genetic endurance. Once the first leaves emerge, the pledge is made.
(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, February 28, 2013.)