16 April 2012

“Faith in a seed”

Seeds are incredible packages of life which possess a simple, almost magical capacity to transform from dry, pale specks into vibrant plants. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” He qualified this statement, saying “I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been.”
Today, the timeless biology of seeds is increasingly overshadowed by more complex topics, such as genetic modification, heirloom varieties, diversity of seedstock and adaptation to specific growing conditions. When Thoreau wrote those words, he could not have known that it is now possible to find seeds which cannot produce plants, or produce “true” to the parent plant.

By way of explanation, allow me describe the decisions we make each spring.  We prefer organic seeds because these seeds are not genetically modified (non-GMO).  They are genetically intact, meaning we can save them, and grow from our own seeds in future seasons. We choose heirloom seeds because they represent the thousands of varieties of edible plants which have been developed over millennia. They tend to have rich flavors, a delightful range of colors, and intriguing histories. Heirloom seeds also perpetuate diversity in our food system, a key ecological consideration. Seeds of Diversity (www.seeds.ca) offers a wealth of information on these topics.

An additional element plays a role in our region – the weather.  We try to use locally developed varieties, to ensure the seeds and plants are adapted to local growing conditions. For example, plants adapted to cold climates are quick-growing, produce well during short growing seasons, and are cold-tolerant, all of which are significant assets for northern gardeners.

Fortunately, there are several seed producers within the province of Québec who offer seeds which meet these criteria. Ferme coopérative Tourne-sol is based in the province and offers a website and catalog in English. La Société des plantes, Les Jardins du Grand Portage, Le Jardin de l’Écoumène, and Mycoflor are also Quebec-based, with websites in French. Of these sources, Mycoflor has the best prices this season. A complete listing of Canadian seed producers is available on the Seeds of Diversity website. 

If you are in the U.S., our favorite seed source is FedCo Seeds, based in Maine.  They write a catalog that I actually read over breakfast for about a month.  I'm not drooling over glossy photos, but rather delighting in political limericks, vintage black-and-white seed catalog illustrations, and insightful, personalized descriptions of each organic, heirloom, and cold-adapted variety.  You can find them online at www.fedcoseeds.com.

Once you have selected your seeds, refer to a planting calendar to get a sense of when soil and air temperatures are right for planting various seeds. Some planting schedules are based on plant hardiness zones - Quebec City is in zone 4 on both Canadian- and U.S.A.-generated maps. Armed with your planting map (see this post) and calendar, and supplied with local seeds, you will need a place to plant. Space, of course, is sometimes the most challenging aspect of urban gardening. Next round, we will tackle that issue head on.

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