She gave me one Seed. “It’s the last of its kind,” she said. “From another time. A time of kindness and warmth. Of joy and abundance,” she told me. “Plant it with care. Plant it where the sun shines, but not too bright. Plant it where the ground is moist, but not wet. Plant it not too shallow, not too deep. Look after it everyday. This seed is full of promises.”
The Seed, it was beautiful. It was just bigger than a grain of sand, but glistened and sparkled like a gem, reflecting the colors of the daylight. So small, so full of magic, I couldn’t believe she had trusted me with it. I wrapped the Seed in my handkerchief so it wouldn’t get lost in my pocket. As soon as I got home, I began to search my yard for the perfect spot for the Seed. In the corner by the wall? No, too shady. Up on the slope? No, too dry. Just under the oak tree? Yes, yes, just under the oak tree. It’s perfect there. The sun shines there, but not too brightly. The ground is moist, but not wet. Its close to the house where I can look after it, everyday.
Carefully, I pulled the handkerchief out of my pocket. I laid it down on the ground, opening it slowly so the Seed wouldn’t accidentally fall out. I searched under the oak tree’s leaves and found a stick just the right size; as thick as the Seed. With the stick in my right hand, I poked a hole in the ground. Not too shallow, not too deep. I squeezed the Seed in the palm of my hand and prayed. “Let this Seed grow. Let it grow big and strong. Let me be a good caretaker. Let the seed live long.” And I dropped the seed into the little hole and carefully covered it.
Mom told me to water the Seed every day, so I did. I watered every day, as soon as I woke up. After I watered, I brought my eyes close down to the ground, looking for a sprout. Day after day, I found nothing. I was sure I had killed it, but I kept watering. How long could it take?
On the 10th day, I gave up. The seed wasn’t coming up. Surely, it was dead.
On the 11th day, I woke up and went back to the spot I buried the seed to grieve. I sat on the ground, eyes half shut, never wanting to plant a seed again. That’s when I noticed it. A little speck of green. I put my face to the ground. Was that it? There, among the dried oak leaves, I saw it. Two tiny leaves, tinier than an ant. Tinier than a baby ant, standing on an even tinier stick. That’s it! The Seed wasn’t dead. The Seed had sprouted!
From that day on, I watered the seed every day. When it got bigger, Mom said to water it a little more. When it got to hot outside, I stood in front of it, hands held high to give it some shade. The Seed grew fast, very fast. After two weeks, it was 1 foot tall. The next week it was two feet tall. By the end of the month, the Seed was taller than me, and I took a long time to get this tall. The Seed reached high into the sky, shining a brilliant blue-green, glistening in the sunlight. Its leaves were as big as elephant ears, with blood red veins. Its hefty roots crawled through the surface of the soil. I had never seen anything like it.
When summer time came, the Seed started to make flowers. Big, beautiful flowers. Hundreds of them. With all kinds of colors. Black on the inside, red swirls outside of that. Then yellow, then green, then purple, then blue. The colors danced as the flowers flapped in the wind. And the smell, oh the smell! You could catch it from blocks away. Sweet and spicy, with hints of vanilla, chocolate and cinnamon. It was the smell that brought in the visitors. First it was the neighbors, wondering what the irresistible fragrance was. The mailman couldn’t help but notice too. It was the milkman, however, that called the newspaper. Soon the whole town was dropping by to see & smell the flowers. We cut some for each guest. We decorated our house with them. We gave some to friends. I put some in my hair. They were the most beautiful, wonderful flowers anyone had ever seen.
Then one fall morning I went outside to cut some flowers for the kitchen table, only to find them hunched over like an old man. I looked into their beautiful faces, only to see the dry brown signature of Death. The same signature was on the stem, and the leaves. The Seed was dead. I tried to hold back the tears as they welled up in my eyes, but couldn’t stop the flow. I cried. And cried and cried. What had I done wrong? Did I water too little? too much? I watered the Seed everyday, took care of it, loved it. Why did the Seed die?
A few days later she came. She knocked on our door, and I answered with eyes red from the tears I had wept. “Don’t cry,” she said, “The Seed is not dead.” She walked me over to the plant. “The Seed is not dead,” she repeated, “You have brought back to life.” What did she mean? The Seed was dead. It was all dead. She cracked a dead flower off the plant and crushed it between her two hands. Dried brown dust fell to the earth as she ground the dead flower, until there was nothing left. She brought her hands in front of my eyes, and opened them slowly.
Her hands were still full of flower dust, but underneath the dust I could see them. They were as beautiful as the one she had given me, shining in the sun. But this time there wasn’t only one. There were hundreds, thousands. I began to cry as she poured the Seeds into my hands. She pulled another dead flower, crushed it, and poured more Seeds into my hands. Then another, and another.
She showed me how to harvest the seed, and that whole afternoon we picked the dead flowers, crushed them, and poured the Seeds into the bucket, bringing new life from the apparent death.
At the end of the day, we had millions of Seeds. Millions.
And then she left.
The next year, we planted the Seeds in the our yard. We gave handfuls to all the neighbors, who gave them to their friends. We gave some to the newspaper man and the milk man. We sent some to aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends. Everyone we knew planted at least a few Seeds that year. And the Seeds grew up, tall and strong, just as the year before. And the flowers came, big and beautiful. Hundreds of thousands of them. The whole city decorated with the flowers that year. They put them on their dinner tables and window sills, on their front porches and back porches, even on their dog houses. The perfume filled every home, every street, and every nose in the whole town.
And then the day came. The leaves, stems, and flowers all dried up, and our town was filled with sadness. But I was not sad, and I did not cry, because I knew. I knew the Seed was not dead. I knew the Seed was more alive than ever. I knew the Seed was alive because people remembered its beauty and remembered its perfume. I knew the Seed was alive because people were planting it. I knew the Seed was alive because my pockets hung low with their weight. The seed had fulfilled its promise.
I have always been fascinated by the magic of seeds. The world’s tallest tree, the redwood, grows from a seed the size of an ant. A single lettuce seed can grow to a lettuce plant and then produce thousands of lettuce seeds in 3 months. If a plant produced 1000 seeds in 3 months, then in 4 generations (1 year), each person on earth could have over 100 seeds. Although we often marvel at the wonders of modern technology, we have developed no technology as advanced as the seed.
When I am in the garden, working with seeds is a sacred act. I revel in the time I spend with seeds: harvesting, threshing, winnowing, sowing. Each time I see a plant flourish and send up thousands of seeds, I feel utterly and completely blessed. I feel especially blessed when a seed that has been gifted to me flourishes. To see a handful of seeds multiplied into thousands upon thousands of seeds is a feeling I can neither describe or transcribe. That feeling is only transcended by knowing that I then can be part of that seeds journey, passing it on to more gardeners, who will help it multiply a thousand times over.
The prolific nature of the seed, the fundamental building block of Nature, runs in direct contrast to the modern world of scarcity. Today, billions of people compete for “scarce” resources, gobbling up the world’s values and valuables on a quest for blissful boredom, obesity, and complacency. “Scientific” seed companies take the genetic diversity of the world, the result of a process of billions of years of evolution, and claim to have invented them. Through seed patents and trade laws, they create scarcity where none exists,
In contrast, the cycle of seed teaches us nature’s true abundance. In Nature, resources are limited only by time. Yes, in one year there will only be so many tomatoes or avocados or cherimoyas. But as long as there is seed, the tomatoes will keep coming, year after year, season after season. There is no end to the abundance. Each year, when the rains come, I see the seeds that have made their home in our garden sprout. They come without our asking, and they give generously. The nutrition, beauty, and joy they provide make me wonder about the origins of the world of scarcity we live in.
To save seed is to take part in the creative process that is life. Each time I harvest seed, I wonder about the people who saved the same seed before me. Where did the seed come from? Where has this seed traveled and who has it been shaped by? Each year a seed grows in our garden, I know that it is slowly changing, becoming more comfortable in our soil, with our weather, and with us as caretakers and watchmen. Our garden will now be part of that seeds story, as it passes from garden to garden, gardener to gardener. I can only hope that as the movement for local foods, home gardens, and connection to the Earth grows, that more and more people will experience the joy and pleasure that it is to save seeds.
Saving seeds the proper way can sometimes be time-consuming and laborious. Many times, I simply revert to what I refer to as “wild seed saving.” The idea behind wild seed saving is not to save seed from the largest plant or the best tasting plant. The idea is to adapt the seed to the soil, the weather, and the water of your garden so that the seed can become “wild.” A wild seed is a seed that requires no care more than what nature provides: it germinates in the rain, is resistant to pests, has a strong immune system, and is able to reproduce without human assistance.
Seeds that are easy to turn wild tend to be annual plants, and sometimes biennials. In our garden, we have successfully wild-ed a number of plants, including cilantro, parsley, calendula, mustard, radish, burdock, carrots, fennel and many others. These plants evolve quickly since they reproduce every year, and their seeds have a tendency to float around and find unoccupied corners of a garden.
To start turning seeds wild, plant an annual plant just as you would normally. It helps to start with multiple of the same plant, lets say a dozen parsley plants. Harvest the plants a little less than you normally would (or possibly not at all), letting them store up plenty of energy to produce a mass of seed. When the plants bolt (grow tall and start producing flowers), let the flowers bloom and be pollinated by insects and wildlife. Soon the flowers will turn into seeds, and the whole plant will start to dry up. When the plant is completely dead and dry, the seeds are mature and ready to be “harvested.”
At this point, instead of collecting the seed and storing them for next year, cut all of the plants at the ground level. Walk around your garden and scatter the seeds in areas where there is no irrigation set up. This is an important step because you want the seeds to become accustomed to your local rain cycle, and not the cycle of your irrigation system. You can cover the seeds with some compost to give them an extra boost, or just leave them unattended to truly toughen them up. Make sure to spread the seeds of all of the plants you have, from the weakest and smallest to the biggest and strongest. The seeds that did well in this year’s weather, may not be the ones that do well in next year’s weather. In trying to re-wild seeds, we must let nature do the selection, and not us.
Now, just wait for the rains. If all goes well, some of the seeds you spread should start to germinate and sprout. Most of the seeds will not come up. The ones that do come up, will be better adapted to your soil and your microclimate. When those plants flower and seed in the next year, repeat the process. After about 7 seasons, the seed will be exactly adapted to your garden.