Garden Variety: Winter Is a Good Time to Choose Seeds for Planting By RON SULLIVAN

Friday December 30, 2005

Winter’s a good time to ponder seeds as well as books. The local world’s way of bestirring itself and greening up has a way of urging us hairless, featherless bipeds indoors to be warm and dry; most of us like being cold and soaked to—or through—the skin rather less than seeds and bulbs and roots do. And the gray skies of today make us gloomy if we can’t stir up our own knowledge that they contain possibilities for tomorrow. 

Seeds are an intellectual gift, unlikely-looking little bits of matter that take the classical elements around us and turn them into sweet substance. It’s never too late to plant something here, and never wrong to think about what we’re going to plant next. Salad greens and potherbs and even natives now; early veggies soon; summer produce in a couple of months. Take advantage of that January-February warm spell we usually get.  

If you plant from seed, you can get varieties that aren’t usually to be found in nurseries, even the best ones. Most big nurseries offer ever-new hybrids, as fashions in flowers and foliage are getting as evanescent as clothing, car, or electronics fads are. Our thirst for novelty’s a good thing, but nobody’s experience is so broad that we can’t find something new that’s old, too. 

Traditional open-pollinated seeds are an investment. They more readily breed true, that is, bear seeds that will grow into something very close to their parents, than “modern” hybrids. As the fashion for heirloom tomatoes and lately other produce—apples, beans—has demonstrated, there are culinary adventures to be had in older varieties that were bred for flavor rather than shipping strength. (Remember the square tomato? What ever happened to that little stunt of technology?) 

For gardens right here in the Bay Area, the Ecology Center hosts the seed collection of BASIL, the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library. You can “check out” a batch of seeds by filling out a membership application and promising to grow them out and bring some seeds from the resulting plants back in return. Seeds are from local gardeners and farmers who donate some from their favorites, the individuals that grow best in their gardens—and, being locally adapted, QED, are likely to grow well in yours. BASIL generally hosts a seed-swapping party in March, but seeds are available for check-out all year. E-mail basil@ecologycenter.org or call the Ecology Center, 548-2220 for open hours. 

To venture further afield, try some seeds from Seed Savers’ Exchange, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa, (563) 382-5990, www.seedsavers.org—just their garlic list will make your mouth water.  

A personal favorite of mine is Native Seeds SEARCH, headquartered at 526 N. 4th Ave., Tucson, Arizona. Call (520) 622-5561, email info@nativeseeds.org or see www.nativeseeds.org for more about this earthly treasure trove. If you think you can grow these desert-adapted varieties, order seeds; if you’re dubious, you can buy their chiles, chile powders, beans, corn, and more.  

You don’t have to be all high-minded to prize the work these folks do. You just need an appetite.