A Quest Inspired by the Pandemic Seed Shortage and a ‘Primal Fear’

When the pandemic lockdowns began, Jennifer Jewell, a garden writer and podcaster, was traveling on an East Coast speaking tour. She and her partner, John Whittlesey, planned to be away from their Butte County, Calif., home for weeks, so they had skipped their usual spring vegetable-garden preparations, including ordering seeds.

“Quick,” they thought, “find a way home — and find seeds.”

But like everyone that upside-down March three years ago, they were faced with the message “out of stock” on product after product, and catalog after catalog. At that point, it was not just the new pathogen that frightened Ms. Jewell.

“It was a really primal fear of, ‘Wait a minute, if we can’t get seeds, we can’t eat,’” she recalled.

Of course, she knew that wasn’t exactly true. The couple grow some of their food, but hardly all of it. But that didn’t calm her. “There was this visceral — human, mammalian, lizard brain, whatever you call it — fear,” she said.

That heightened sense of vulnerability triggered an awareness that however much she knew about seed, it wasn’t enough.

A cascade of questions followed, starting with: What are the supply chains that get seed to gardeners? Are the big issues we hear about in the seed world, like genetic engineering, things that should worry someone who shops for organic seed in small consumer catalogs?

“As a gardener, I felt like finding those answers and others should be part of my due diligence somehow,” she said.

Ms. Jewell’s inquiry into seeds began during the early pandemic lockdowns, when she used her walks in rural woodland canyons to try “to see the seeds of my place more specifically and carefully, and with deeper observation,” she said.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

The quest for answers that she embarked on culminated in her latest book, “What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds,” to be published in September.

Her inquiry began in the early months of the pandemic, on morning walks in the rural canyon woodlands of Northern California, where she tried “to see the seeds of my place more specifically and carefully, and with deeper observation,” she said.

The most obvious ones, the acorns and buckeyes (Aesculus californica), were her gateway.

“Once you really see one plant’s seed, you begin to see seed everywhere,” she writes.

And also: “Know your forest and you will learn your cones, nuts and berries; know your cones, nuts and berries, and you will know your forest.”

Ms. Jewell found herself wondering which of her native seeds had been used as edibles, because all of our food seeds originally came from wild species. Acorns, for example, are a traditional Native American food.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

Exploring Your Local Seedshed

Perhaps because thoughts of food vulnerability prompted her explorations, Ms. Jewell found herself wondering which of her native seeds had been used as edibles.

As the Welsh proverb pinned to her home-office bulletin board reads, “A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”

She knew that all of our food seed originally came from wild species, so “this seemed like one of the disconnected pathways that maybe I could elucidate,” she said.

Acorns, for example, are a traditional Native American food — as are the young leaves, flowers and pods of Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and the berries of Manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Corms of the spring-flowering native bulbs she saw on those walks, including various Triteleia, Brodiaea and Camassia, are foodstuffs, too.

Her edible line of inquiry spawned another question: Why is there such a separation between our native habitat-style gardens and vegetable gardens? “They should be reconnected,” she said, “because they are, in fact, born of each other.”

Each morning, she would check for progress: What seed was forming? Which had dispersed? How much bigger would each one get?

“I’m watching them like they’re friends,” she said, adding this advice for other gardeners, especially in the late summer and fall: “Go out and explore what seeds are in your seedshed.”

Cleaning the seeds of Brodiaea, a spring-flowering native bulb in the part of Northern California where Ms. Jewell lives. The corms of Brodiaea were foodstuffs of Native Americans.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

A Vocabulary of Its Own

“Seed,” Ms. Jewell writes, “is illegible to many of us.”

Let’s learn its language, and also listen to all of the ways we have infused our own language with the messages in a seed, Ms. Jewell suggests. Expressions like “seed money,” “bad seed,” “seeds of war,” “seeds of change” — each one is as loaded as the seeds themselves.

Seeds have also made their mark on athletics, with the practice of “seeding” players in tournaments that began in the late 19th century, in tennis. To maximize interest for the audience and competitors, players are ranked, and the best are distributed throughout the draw. They aren’t all positioned up front, any more than we would sow all of the tallest plants in a bed where they would overshadow the rest. We plant seeds, and players, strategically.

If you have seen seeds form on a thistle (Cirsium occidentale), you have observed the feathery, bristle-like appendage called a pappus that hangs on to help each seed take flight.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

As we study the seeds of our region, and our garden, we quickly learn about dry seed (lettuce) and wet seed (a tomato), as well as what Ms. Jewell calls an entire “deliciously specific vocabulary” of seed structures, sizes and shapes.

Are the seed-holding fruits of a particular plant dehiscent, like a milkweed or poppy pod, splitting open when mature to release the contents? Or are they indehiscent, like a walnut or sunflower, remaining closed even when ripe? Those seeds need help to get through that protective layer, either from decomposition or an animal.

An unfamiliar word for a familiar sight: pappus. If you have seen seeds form on a dandelion, thistle or lettuce, cousins in the Aster family, you will have observed that feathery, bristle-like appendage that hangs on to help each seed take flight, aiding in wind dispersal.

Like people from a place and culture of common origin who live away from their homeland, scattered in a diaspora, so it is with some seeds. The word diaspore refers to the seed and other plant parts that assist its dispersal, like that pappus, or the lipid-rich elaiosomes attached to a Trillium seed, which entice ants to carry it to another location where it can set down roots.

In dry-seeded plants like lettuce, each seed is equipped with a pappus to help with its distribution on the wind.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

Poison Seed and Seed With Possibilities

The question of which catalog to support with our seed dollars can be another puzzle. Ms. Jewell adheres to some basic guidelines, emphasizing open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seed that can be saved year after year, as well as seed grown organically.

And while she does allow herself to buy the occasional, irresistible thing “for fun” from a catalog from another region, she makes most of her purchases from nearby sources — for her, that means those from Southern Oregon to Central California — because she wants seed that is adapted to her growing conditions.

All of this means that she buys mostly from small companies that are the antithesis of the too-big parts of the seed story, like the worrisome legacy of genetically modified, Roundup-ready agricultural seed. The modern era has witnessed seed genetics become another form of intellectual property — patented, trademarked and owned by a handful of multinational corporations, many of which got their start as “petroleum, munitions or pharmaceutical companies, or all three,” Ms. Jewell said.

The seed-holding fruits of a milkweed pod are dehiscent, splitting open when mature to release the contents.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

Also scary, she added: We have poisoned the seeds themselves, soaking them with neonicotinoids, water-soluble insecticides that turn the seeds into vectors of the poison’s spread — a situation that is virtually unmanageable.

“Once that insecticide or pesticide goes on the seed, it’s kind of out of the regulator’s hands,” she said. Up to 90 percent rinses off and leaches into surrounding soil and water, she added, causing “immense disruption and destruction to soil, bird, aquatic, native plant and pollinator life.”

She was making this point in a slide talk she gave at a church recently, when a voice called out in the darkened room, “I don’t believe you!”

It wasn’t rudeness, she thinks, so much as a spontaneous, incredulous gasp of disbelief.

“In hindsight, I wish I could ask them, ‘Do you not believe this, or do you not want to? Or are you overwhelmed by what you should or can do with this truth?’” she said.

Each of us, she urged, should “be part of the advocacy for making sure seed is treated with respect and transparency and integrity.”

Starting by keeping seed close, and front of mind. The morning walks help her to avoid being overwhelmed, so she can stay connected to the sense of the miraculous inherent in every seed.

Ms. Jewell is saving a cache of seed in a “seed drawer” of a guest-room bureau.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

She is likewise buoyed by stories of the new generation of seedkeepers she has gotten to know, or know better, while writing the book, many of them guests on her podcast, Cultivating Place. They are “mission-based and culture-based seed savers and breeders and sellers,” she said, “passionate stewards who hold seed among the highest expressions of life and, as many of them say, ‘blessings and lessons’ from the past to the future.”

They are where hope lies, she believes, like the seed “friends” she spies on her walks.

Unusual bits and pieces that fall to the ground often find their way into her pockets and, once home, onto her “seed altar” — a bookshelf in her entry that has become their home, a reminder of their central role in our lives.

Seeds saved from recent crops of arugula, slow-bolting cilantro, Cherokee Purple tomato and a bee-supporting spring wildflower, Collinsia tinctoria, are stashed in jars in the refrigerator door. But a far bigger cache is in the “seed drawer” of a bureau in a guest room.

It is a hope chest of seed — dried and stored — the stuff of the next possible sowing, and the next.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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