On Seeds and Seedlings

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:37:00 AM

In the 1960s Euell Gibbons was the man to consult for a back-to-nature approach to food, and Ruth Stout was the expert in a more natural way of growing it. Since one Gibbons title is Stalking the Healthful Herbs, in which is a recipe for pine-needle tea (“almost enjoyable”), when in January it was time to wonder what to do with one’s Christmas tree, the answer was, send it to Euell.  

As we all know, mankind intervened in natural growth in order to stay at home rather than wander around looking for seasonal fruits and nuts. One senses that womankind is more accurately identified as the promulgator of this far-reaching idea. It is not, after all, much fun trailing after one’s hairy mate in order to watch him try to clobber various ailing or careless fauna, while carrying one infant and keeping tabs on three or four others. Better to tuck a few kernels of corn by the cave entrance and stay put. Very soon men took over this good idea, as they so often do. 

After reading how Stout applied a deep fluffy mulch of hay over her food garden, I wondered whether I could return to the pre-dawn of agriculture and interfere even less than my cave-woman kin. After all, Stout’s method of gardening is close to nature’s, since her hay mulch, like all fallen vegetative debris, continuously renews the earth. 

So, having noticed a volunteer collard producing flowers, I left it to set seed, which it did with its usual enthusiasm. What would Mother Nature do next? Why, let the seed fall where it might. So after covering an area lightly with hay, I randomly cast the seed over the surface of it. Since there were hundreds of seeds left over, if these did not germinate, there was plenty of time (it was early fall) for a second sowing. 

Kale is botanically identical to collards, so for those who are mad for kale but dislike its crinkly leaves, try collards. If the mature tops are beheaded, little collards, or kales, will sprout in the axils, where leaf joins stem, prolonging for months the harvesting of this most useful vegetable.  

The collard seedlings did come up through the mulch and were evenly spaced too, and in just the right amount. Furthermore, they looked stronger than usual. Since this indicated sub-mulch competition, I decided to see what would happen if I did not thin previously sown carrots and turnips. All the experts tell one to thin, but was that really necessary? Like Stout, I have learned to listen to experts with caution. Besides, thinning is a tedious business, as however carefully one extracts a tiny carrot, all its neighbors want to come out too. 

Next year I will try sowing the tinier carrot seed on top of the mulch, to see if these too will germinate evenly spaced, doing away with thinning altogether. 

While waiting for the outcome of this battle of the root vegetables, which looks promising, having already yielded several precocious carrots, I noticed in a wilder part of my garden an abundance of young wild radish leaves. Since these need to be removed if grasses are to survive, why not eat them? After all, my ancient ancestor would not have spurned amy free food. Lightly steamed, they tasted the way spinach used to taste before we deadened our palates with food grown in contaminated earth—full of iron-rich flavor. 

Books often say one should mix radish seed with carrot, to mark the rows, because radishes germinate faster, although mine don’t, and gardeners like squirrels forget what and where they have planted. Sow your carrots in their own bed, I say, and label it. 

Years ago I decided to try to grow a redwood tree, despite the fact that I lived in an apartment. It was easy enough to drop a few seeds from a cone into a pot, and then forget about it. Several months later as I walked past the table on which was the pot, I was surprised to see an unmistakable redwood sprig emerging. It turns out that redwoods are abundantly equipped for regeneration. This one languished in its pot for some years until I moved and could plant it in the ground. Fifteen years and thirty feet later it is doing its stuff, absorbing carbon dioxide and dropping a few sprigs for festively decorating the duck coop. In January, thanks to Stout rather than Gibbons, these will be strewn under the blueberries or the camellias, both lovers of acidic evergreen needles.  

May all beings, organic growers or not, have a wonderful holiday season and a wild, well-mulched New Year.