“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.”
— Henry David Thoreau, “The Dispersion of Seeds,” from notes written 1856-1861
At the beginning of our new year, I thought it fitting to revisit the topic of seeds, the beginning of plant life. Of course, it might be argued that seeds are actually the ending of plant life, since producing seeds is among the plant’s final acts before dying or entering a dormant period. Rather than quibble, let’s say seeds are an ending and a beginning; in fact, they are a supreme example of the continuous cycle of life.
Henry David Thoreau, a scientist-poet, quibbled over seeds a lot. During the last years of his life, Thoreau studied the dispersal of seeds in the woods near his home in Concord, Massachusetts. At the center of Thoreau’s inquiries was to quash “a lingering doubt in many minds with regard to some trees, whether they bear … seed or not.” He continued, “It is the more important to show not only that they do, but for what purpose.”
With that goal in mind, Thoreau recorded his observations of seeds and seed dispersal in thousands of pages of notes. They were finally organized into a manuscript and published 125 years after his death in a book called “Faith in a Seed” (1993).
Thus, it might seem to 21st century gardeners that Thoreau has done all of the hard work thinking about seeds for us. However, today there are considerations about seeds that Thoreau would never have imagined. As we browse through our favorite seed catalogs this winter, here are 10 questions to keep in mind. For more information about seeds, visit my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.
1. Are the seeds from locally grown plants? Seeds harvested from plants grown close to home have adapted to our unique climate and growing conditions. Purchasing regionally grown seeds also supports local farmers.
2. Are the seeds heirloom? Heirloom seeds are harvested from open-pollinated plants that pass on “true-to-type” genetic characteristics to their offspring. Open-pollination occurs through insects, birds, wind or other natural means. Heirlooms have been saved and shared through several generations, but dates used for labeling heirlooms vary. The general consensus is that heirloom produce tastes better and is more nutritious. Using heirloom seeds helps preserve genetic diversity of plants.
3. Are the seeds from plants native to our region? Native plants were originally found in Southern Oregon and were not directly or indirectly introduced by humans. Native plants are ideally suited to our climate and growing conditions. Native plants provide habitats that support native wildlife and pollinators.
4. Are the seeds organic? Organic seeds are genetically unaltered seeds that come from plants that were grown using nature-derived media, amendments, fertilizers and pest controls. Seeds that are commercially sold as organic must be certified by the USDA National Organic Program.
5. Are the seeds viable? Using fresh seeds greatly improves germination rates. Seed viability ranges from 1 to 5 years, depending on the type of seed, as well as effective seed storage.
6. How long will it take for the seeds to produce a harvest? Seed packets usually state the number of days, on average, from sowing until harvest. Length of time varies from around 25 days for radishes to about 250 days for garlic. It’s important to keep average frost dates in mind when selecting plants to grow from seed. In Medford, the average date for the last frost is April 26, and the average date for the first frost is Oct. 19 (around 175 days in the growing season).
7. Do the seeds need special preparation? Some seeds (trees, flowering perennials) need to be cold stratified, or chilled, for a period of time in order to germinate. Large seeds and those with hard outercoats (beans, corn, sunflowers, nasturtiums) germinate better when they are scarified by soaking them overnight, nicking them with a razor, or lightly rubbing the coat with sandpaper.
8. Do the seeds need special growing conditions? Some seeds need darkness to germinate (such as calendula), and others require light (such as lettuce) that may need to be provided artificially. Other seeds (such as watermelon) should be sowed in compostable pots and then planted in the garden still in the pot because they do not like to be transplanted.
9. Do the seeds need to be sown indoors or directly into the garden? Some long-season crops should be started indoors (tomatoes, peppers, watermelons and eggplant). Other seeds need to be sown directly in the garden after the last frost date has passed. These include large seeds (beans, peas, squash), plants with deep roots (radishes, beets, carrots) and others (garlic, leaf lettuce, potatoes).
10. Would using pelleted seeds be advisable? Some seeds are so tiny (such as carrots) that it may be helpful to use pelleted seeds to reduce waste and time spent thinning the seedlings. The pellet coating is typically made from clay-based material; organic pelleted seeds are available.
Although Thoreau could not have anticipated some of our contemporary concerns about seeds, he was certainly a visionary regarding the importance of conservation. In “The Dispersion of Seeds,” he predicted, “As time elapses and the resources from which our forests have been supplied fail, we shall of necessity be more and more convinced of the significance of the seed.”
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.