Table Seeds

by Sarah West


Resourceful gardeners (and in times past, every gardener) think to save a few seeds of their favorite vegetables each season, keeping their stock fresh and selecting for traits they desire: early ripening, flavor, color, size. Not all seeds are savable at the home scale because they require too much separation distance to keep their genetics pure. Others, like tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce, will come true most of the time even from two different varieties growing side-by-side.

It is satisfying to save seeds for next year’s garden, weighty harvests contracted down to feather-light parcels tucked away for winter. Beyond a hard won sunflower or chewy-roasted pumpkin seed here and there, we rarely think to eat the seeds we grow. They are so small, so insubstantial, and so often unfamiliar that we don’t consider most seeds worthy of garden space in their own right.

I grew my first seeds by accident: fennel that got away from me, bolted and flowered while I was concerned with some other part of the garden. By the time I took notice, they had already developed their green seeds in pretty little umbels I didn’t have the heart to cut down. Once they’d dried, I put a few in a jar mostly as a way of capitalizing my loss: no fennel bulb, but a stash of concentrated fennel flavor. I don’t use much fennel seed and promptly forgot about it, but a year later when I found it again, in need of some for a pickle brine, I was amazed at the full fennel fragrance that greeted my nose when I opened the jar.

I soon discovered that cilantro does the same thing, deviously racing into seed development only a week or so after much foliage appears. When they first form, the green seed heads are a tender, pungently citrus addition to curry pastes or they can be eaten whole—raw or pickled. The mature, dried seed heads are too woody to eat whole and must be ground before use as a seasoning.

Dill, a relative of fennel, follows a similar trajectory. As with coriander, the fresh seeds of dill and fennel are bright, fragrant versions of their dried flavor. Nearly effortless to grow and easy to harvest (just pinch them off when dry, or hang their clusters upside-down in a paper bag and shake once the stems are brittle), you simply need to sort out any plant debris (sifting and winnowing in front of a fan, with practice, still works), and store them in an airtight container. Just like all garden harvests, their freshness is obvious and will find its way into your home cuisine the more you experiment.

Last year I grew my first purposeful seeds. Impulsive catalog purchases, I chose cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and kalonji (Nigella sativum). The cumin never went very far; though I got meager germination, the few transplants I put in suffered before being overtaken by weeds (what you get when you combine plant and gardener indifference). The nigella flourished in a profusion of delicate blooms whose shape recalls a (albeit restrained) passionflower: wide opened petals displaying showy rings of pistol and stamen.

From the center of this fanfare grows an urn-like seed capsule, segmented into vertical pods that hold a dozen or so seeds each. When the whole capsule is dry and the seeds have released themselves from its walls, it rattles when shaken and the seeds spill out easily when the pods are split open. Looking like a rough-hewn black sesame seed, kalonji have a lemon rind bitterness that quickly becomes floral allium fragrance in the mouth (hence another name for them: black onion seed).

Kalonji is a common spice in Pakistan, Bengal, Turkey and parts of India, used widely in dal, as one-fifth of the “five-spice” seasoning panch-phoron, and to top flatbreads and rolls. They also make a pretty, though modest, garden flower that has culinary applications. Had the cumin thrived, it would have offered similar services, gracefully filling in space between the more showy garden flowers while developing capsules to refresh the spice cupboard.

Though I cannot personally vouch for them, poppies are touted as a painless home seed crop. The same variety that produces handsome capsules of delicious seeds also happens to have showy pink and lavender blossoms. Next year I’ll be planting a variety called ‘Zair,’ selected for its especially sweet, blue-gray culinary seeds. And for a real challenge, I may try sesame, a seed for which our climate is not ideal. A tropical native, they desire a long, hot growing season to reach maturity. If next summer is anything like this summer, a home harvest of sesame seeds may be the silver lining.

Find kalonji (listed as Nigella ‘Black Cumin’) and Poppy ‘Zair Breadseed’ from the regionally local Uprising Seed; Cumin and Zair Poppy from Fedco Seed; and sesame from Nichols Garden Nursery or Kitazawa Seed Company.