Understanding Seeds and the Pandemic Seed Shortage

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When the lockdown started due to the pandemic, jennifer jewelA gardening writer and podcaster, traveling on an East Coast speaking tour. She and her partner, John Whittlesey, had planned to be away from their Butte County, California home for several weeks, so they skipped their usual springtime vegetable-garden preparations, including ordering seeds.

“Hurry,” he thought, “find the way home – and find the seed.”

But like everyone else who marched on Ulta three years ago, they encountered product after product, and catalog after catalog after catalog after catalog, with “not in stock” messages. At the time, it wasn’t just the new pathogen that scared Ms. Jewell.

“It was a really primal fear, ‘Wait a minute, if we can’t find the seeds, we won’t be able to eat,'” she recalls.

Of course, she knew that wasn’t quite true. The couple grows some of their own food, but hardly all. But this did not calm her down. “There was this gut — human, mammalian, lizard brain, whatever you call it — fear,” she said.

That heightened sense of insecurity led to an awareness that no matter how much she knew about seeds, it wasn’t enough.

This then led to a series of questions: What are the supply chains that provide seeds to gardeners? Do we hear about big issues like genetic engineering in the seed world that should concern anyone who purchases organic seed in small consumer catalogs?

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


The search for answers that he began culminates in his latest book, “What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds,” to be published in September.

His inquiries began in the early months of the pandemic on morning walks in the rural valley woods of northern California, where he “tried to look at the seeds of my place more specifically and carefully, and with deeper observation,” he said. Said.

The most obvious, the acorn and buckeye (Aesculus californica), were his entrées.

“Once you actually see the seed of a plant, you start to see seeds everywhere,” she writes.

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

Perhaps because thoughts of food insecurity prompted her to explore, Ms. Jewell wondered which of her native seeds had been used as foods.

As a Welsh proverb hangs on her home-office bulletin board, “The hidden seed in the heart of an apple is an invisible orchard.”

She knew that all of our edible seeds originally came from wild species, so “this seems like one of those cut corners that maybe I can clear up,” she said.

For example, acorns are a traditional Native American food—as are the young leaves, flowers, and pods of the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and the berries of manzanita (Arctostaphylos). The corms of the spring-flowering native bulbs she saw on those walks, including various Tritelia, Brodia, and Camassia, are also edible.

Their edible line of inquiry led to another question: Why is there such a separation between our native habitat-style gardens and vegetable gardens? “They should be reunited,” she said, “because they are actually born of each other.”

Every morning, she’d check the progress: Which seeds are forming? which was shattered? How big will each get?

“I see them as friends,” she said, adding this advice for other gardeners, especially in late summer and fall: “Go out and find out what seeds are in your seedshed.”

“Seed,” writes Ms. Jewell, “is unreadable for many of us.”

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

Seeds have also made their mark on athletics, with the practice of “seeding” players in tournaments beginning in the late 19th century in tennis. To maximize interest for spectators and competitors, players are ranked, and the best are distributed throughout the draw. Not all of them are located in the front, so much so that we will plant all the tallest plants in one bed where they will shade the rest. We plant seeds and players strategically.

As we study the seeds in our area and our garden, we quickly learn about dry seeds (lettuce) and wet seeds (tomatoes), as well as a whole “deliciously specific vocabulary” of Ms. Jewell seed structures, sizes also learn about and size.

Do the fruits that hold the seeds of a particular plant disintegrate like the pods of milkweed or poppy seeds, breaking open to release the contents when ripe? Or are they unopened like walnuts or sunflowers, but remain closed when ripe? Those seeds need help to break off that protective layer, either by decomposition or by an animal.

An unfamiliar word for a familiar sight: pappus. If you’ve watched seed formation on a dandelion, thistle, or lettuce, which are cousins ​​to the aster family, you may have noticed that a feathery, hair-like appendage hangs from each seed to help it take flight, and aid in wind dispersal. helps.

Just as people of a place and culture of common origin, who live far away from their motherland, are scattered in the diaspora, so is the case with some seeds. The term diaspore refers to the seed and other plant parts that aid in its dispersal, such as the pappus, or the lipid-rich elysomes attached to the trillium seed, which entice ants to transport it to another location where it can take root. Can collect.

The question of which catalog to support with our seed dollars can be another conundrum. Ms. Jewell follows a few basic guidelines, emphasizing open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds that can be saved from year to year, as well as organically grown seeds.

And while she allows herself to buy the occasional, irresistible thing from another area’s catalog “for fun,” she makes most of her purchases from nearby sources—for her, that means southern Oregon to as far as Central California – because she wants seeds best suited to her growing conditions.

This means she buys mostly from smaller companies that are in contrast to much larger parts of the seed story, such as the worrying legacy of genetically modified, Roundup-formulated agricultural seed. Seed genetics has become another form of intellectual property in the modern era — patented, trademarked and owned by a handful of multinational corporations, many of which started as “petroleum, munitions or pharmaceutical companies, or all three,” Ms. Jewel said.

He added, this is also scary: we have made poison by soaking the seeds ourselves neonicotinoidsWater-soluble insecticides that turn seeds into vehicles for the spread of the poison—a situation that is virtually intolerable.

“Once that pesticide or insecticide goes on the seed, it’s out of the hands of the regulator,” he said. Up to 90 percent of runoff, he added, enters surrounding soil and water, causing “huge disruption and destruction of soil, bird, aquatic, native plant and pollinator life.”

She was saying this in a recent church slide talk when a voice in the dark room said, “I don’t believe you!”

She thinks it was not rudeness, but a spontaneous, incredulous gasp of disbelief.

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

He urged that each of us “must be part of the advocacy to ensure that the seed is treated with respect and with transparency and integrity.”

Begin by keeping the seed close and front of mind. Morning walks help her to keep from getting overwhelmed, so that she can stay connected to the miraculous spirit contained in every seed.

She’s also excited by the stories of a new generation of seeders she’s gotten to know while writing the book, or better yet, many of whom have been guests on her podcast, farm field, They are “mission-based and culture-based seed keepers and breeders and sellers,” he said, “passionate stewards who keep seeds in their highest expressions of life and, as many of them say, ‘blessings and lessons from the past. ‘ Future.”

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

Unusual bits and pieces that fall to the ground often find their way into his pockets and, once home, onto his “seed altar”—a bookshelf in his entryway that has become his home, a symbol of his presence in our lives. Reminds me of the central role.

Seeds saved from recent crops of arugula, slow-bolting cilantro, Cherokee purple tomatoes and the bee-pro-spring wildflower, Collinsia tinctoria, are kept in jars in the refrigerator door. But an even bigger stash is in the “seed drawer” of the bureau in a guest room.

It is a hope box of seeds – dried and stored – for the next possible sowing and the material for the next sowing.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast a garden pathand a book of the same name.

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