Sunday, January 21, 2007

Seed starting

Carol at May Dreams Garden posted a series of questions about seed sowing habits and was rewarded with many comments and blog posts concerning seeds. A subsequent post listing many of these answers made for fascinating reading. Responses ranged all along the spectrum, pointing up the marvelous diversity of gardening styles.

This whole series of posts set me to thinking about seed starting. Nurseries certainly offer plenty of starts including a respectable number of heirlooms. What cannot be found at the nurseries is often available at farmer’s markets. So why start seeds?

Pragmatic answers abound. Seed starting is economical, variety is vastly greater, and scheduling is not left to commercial interest. But for me there is some other intangible consideration that I can’t quite put my (green) finger on.

It could be as simple as the increasing daylength triggering my desire for garden activity. Opportunities are limited in January so seed starting fits the bill. My small corner of a shared greenhouse offers a warm space where I can almost imagine spring to be right around the corner. This alone could explain my annual seed starting ritual.

But still there is a more elusive appeal. I think I am a little closer to understanding after recently reading a passage from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver. He writes of an elderly cousin Mary whom he credits with introducing him to the importance of plants:

She was adamant: this was a Quaker thing, a fitting activity for a pacifist, and a moral requirement for a nurturing temperament.

Reading this passage I am inclined to think that the intent of her belief can be carried beyond Quakers to include all spiritual disciplines. But the phrase that really caught my attention was ‘moral requirement for a nurturing temperament’. Does this mean a duty of those with such nurturing tendencies or rather a prerequisite of sorts? I would like to add this woman to my list of imaginary dinner guests, seat her next to Thomas Jefferson and sit back to listen!

My sense of all this is that gardeners possess a nurturing temperament, but on a more subconscious level. I don’t think much about the connection I feel when I sow the seeds, the deep thrill when they germinate and the satisfaction when I finally plant them in the earth. That’s just the way of it. Maybe for me this moral requirement is simply the unexamined visceral reverence for the miracle of a seed.

Woolgathering and analysis aside, seed starting serves a very important function. It serves to bridge the wildly extravagant imaginings of seed ordering and the down to earth spring planting. By the time the seedlings are hardened off and ready to plant, the inevitable failures and successes will have readied the gardener as well for the real work of the garden.

This week I will begin my seed starting with cool weather crops: parsley, lettuces and greens. Beginning the seed starting really marks my first day of spring.

Everything in its season; ain’t it grand?