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.