Gathering Seeds

These are the farm’s quiet days. All is dormant, patiently waiting for spring. Any farm work happens indoors at my desk, amid calendars and spreadsheets. And this season’s most important work, and that which gives me the greatest pleasure, is gathering my seeds.

It is a hopeful thing to know that in these frozen and gray days farmers are gathering their seeds, as they have been doing since the dawn of agriculture.

I read in one early-twentieth-century farming memoir how the farmer at harvest time selected the best corn—“bright, uniform, well-filled ears with straight rows”—and stashed it, like golden treasure, in a secure storeroom upon a custom wooden rack. Sometime in February, he prised with the tip of a penknife a few kernels from each ear, then germinated them in a box partially filled with earth and covered with muslin, labeling each seed to keep track of which ears they came from. After the seeds had sprouted, showing which would grow strongly and which poorly, he laid aside the weaker and sterile ears and shelled the good ears for that spring’s seed corn.

I don’t do anything like that. I get all my seeds in the mail from seed companies. Still, I like knowing that when I spread those little paper packets on my dining room table, cross-checking the packing slips and organizing by kind, I join all those old farmers in this yearly ritual.

I ordered my seeds from four companies this year: Fedco Seeds, an old reliable standby with a delightfully quirky catalog and a generous discount policy; Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which caters to the smaller-scale grower and offers many excellent varieties that work well for this kind of farm; High Mowing Seeds for certified-organic seeds, which we are required to use when available; and the Seed Savers Exchange for heirloom varieties to add a dash of color and uniqueness to our vegetable offerings.

And this year I ordered them earlier than usual, back in December, to sidestep the now typical pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. A couple of weeks later, brown boxes and padded envelopes began arriving, all the coming season’s potential bounty, courtesy of FedEx, UPS, and the United States Postal Service.

Seeds are such commonplace things, and yet also magical, these little nuggets of wonder packaged in envelopes and spread across my dining room table. The whole season is contained there, in potential, from the first greenhouse work at the beginning of March to the final harvest sometime in December. Such an inheritance, all those plantsmen and women, all those farmers and gardeners, working and watching, selecting and saving the best, passing it along to the next generation, an unbroken chain anchored in the distant past and stretching out toward the unknown future.

What Else There Is To See

After an unusually mild December, we have now had some proper winter weather. The storm a couple of weeks ago gave us maybe a foot of snow here at the farm, and the fields are still covered in a blanket of white—the farm’s slate wiped clean, marking a clear line between the old season just past and the new one to come.

This weather drives the birds to our feeders, so Herbie the farm cat now spends the balance of his days indoors perched on his chair in the sunroom intently watching what we call the bird show—all the flocking finches, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, and slate-eyed juncos. Truth be told, I like the show, too. I hung a feeder just outside the window of the old chicken coop I’ve claimed as a farm office/writing shed, and the birds keep me company while I sit there dreaming and scheming and plotting and planning.

Despite the sometimes unrelenting grayness, January can be one of my favorite months on the farm. Not only a time for looking ahead and beginning the long list of preparations for the coming season, it’s also a chance to expand my perception of what the farm is capable of. Once we hit May, my vision necessarily narrows to the the day-to-day urgencies and emergencies of running a small-scale diversified organic vegetable operation. The long litany of tasks obscures the farm like morning mist.

Winter’s snow clears all that, providing the proverbial blank canvas. So right now there is time and space to think, to engage my imagination. Even though we’ve lived and worked here for almost a decade, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible. And now is the time of year to see what else there is to see.