The Seed Catalog

February 19th, 2016

In mid-December, as we reach the darkest point of the year, a subtle change ripples through the fabric of time.  I stroll leisurely to the mail box, open its door, and find within a bulging stack of seed catalogs.  They are full color, glossy, descriptive beauties listing hundreds of vegetables, culinary herbs, flowers, perennial fruits, and trees.  With this one arrival, the mind of a Midwestern vegetable farmer is transported into the next growing season.  It is our reminder of the not too distant future, seed trays full of delicate new plants, the smells of spring earth, rain, the beginning of another gardening season.  I like to take a favorite catalog or two out of the stack and sit with a cup of coffee, sippin and flippin.  This is my dream-time walk-through, not serious planning yet, just entertainment.  I slowly scroll through page after page, reacquainting myself with old standby crops and exploring the descriptions of the new varieties. I gaze intently at the pictures, dreaming about that first ripe tomato or crisp salad, and the return of the warm sunny days of summer.  Once the dream run is finished, it is time to get down to business.  Now the more arduous task begins of seed order assembly.  This task includes comparing field logs with greenhouse records, past seed orders and the future season’s planting plan.  I’m part guided by emotion and art, and part by the farm bank account; it’s a balance.  Flipping between several of the most reputable catalogs helps me to discover the correct variety of plant for the correct growing application at the best possible price.  With variety selected, I begin building my current year seed list.  This list will include how many seeds I need to order and from whom, as well as the variety name, price, and planting date.

At this point, I have become warmly familiar with my favorite catalogs, like an old friend with whom I have a familiar ease.  I will return to these publications again and again throughout the growing season as nature ebbs and flows, for even the best laid plans are always subject to the mischief of Mother Nature.  If there is one lesson farming teaches you, well, it’s that we control very little of this life.  And at the same time, we really can control so much!  The very act of planting a seed changes the world.  I have always believed in the abundance of life, which is what perhaps brought me back to the farm.  This is why the seed catalog is such a powerful piece of literature.  I am forever amazed at the life that springs from seeds that arrived in the mail.  Each one of those little plants will first be nourished by me, then go on to nourish those who choose to eat it.  The seeds I choose and the plants we grow end up shaping the very farm around us.  We build structures, lay out fields, plant windbreaks, build soil, all for the care of those plants that came from seeds that came from generation upon generation of our ancestors’ care.  These seeds are our collective human mind, what we are capable of, and I can feel this history as I play my little part. 

Someday I dream of saving my own seed, learning what it takes to develop seeds specific to this farm, this location.  Learning the beauty of evolution, the seeds we receive are coded with a specific genetic identity, infused with information from a location, changed ever so very slightly from the year before.  If, in the future, I become expert enough to feel confident in saving my own seed, then those little packets of genetic code will take on changes based on this micro climate.  Microscopic bits of knowledge gained from the surrounding environment of this time and place, but for now I will content myself with the expert work which went into the seeds that arrive in my mail box.  More than likely I will always rely on the experts for most of my seed needs.  If I embark on the seed saving road, I revel in the thought of becoming a small player in our collective seed history for as long as those seed lines survive.  Until then, I will grab another cup of coffee, return to my catalogs, and indulge the seeds of a dreamer as I await the coming spring.