I'm not one of those petro-centric Pollyannas who trumpets the upsides of climate change. That would be creepy--like complimenting a terminally ill person on her weight loss. There are some 'bonuses' we'd be better off without.
But this unseasonably cool spring -- a by-product of global weirding -- is a perverse gift for those of us who didn't get around to planting our gardens yet. The soil's only just beginning to warm up, so now is actually a great time to get some seeds in the ground!
Honestly, it's never too late, because there is always some variety of herb, vegetable or flower that will grow for you if you've got a good source for seeds and the information you need to choose wisely and plant well. For me, that source is the awesome farmers who founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I think of their online catalog as a passport to a thrilling kind of time travel--it transports me simultaneously to our agrarian past, but also catapults me to a future where we've reclaimed our heritage from multinational monoliths like Monsanto.
I browse their catalog, select varieties to delight all my senses, and, like generations of gardeners before me, eagerly await the arrival of a package filled with gorgeous seed packets. What could be more life-affirming than putting a seed in the ground, watering it and watching a new life sprout?
It's the best antidote I know of to counter all the grim stories that threaten to overwhelm and discourage us everyday. So I hope you'll take a break to take a look at some of my favorite new seed varieties and their delightful packaging, and spend a few more minutes learning the backstory of the Hudson Valley Seed Library from Ken Greene, one of its founders, who kindly answered a few questions for me recently:
I think what this black panther is trying to say is "Once you go black, you can't go back," when it comes to soybeans. Black soybeans have such a superb texture and sweet, nutty flavor that their caucasian cousins literally pale by comparison. Artwork by Jessica Pollak, an Illustrator obsessed with food, travel and patterns. She spends her days in her Providence, RI studio creating fresh, funny art.
I never had kids because I had doubts about my ability to nurture things. But Shanghai Baby Bok Choy is one baby I know I can raise successfully; this is one happy-go-lucky cabbage patch kid. It grows fast in hot weather and cold, so you can sow it whenever you like and harvest its sweet leaves and crunchy stems all season long. Artwork by the marvelous, multi-talented Natalie Merchant, my fellow 'fracktivist.' Cheers to Natalie for lending her vibrant voice and vision to defend the fertile Hudson Valley where she has been busy gardening and seed saving for 25 years.
Here's one deer you don't need to fear in your garden! Unlike those white-tailed intruders who think your entire yard is a 24/7 salad bar planted just for them, this sweet little doe just wants to give you the most exquisite saffron yellow mini bell peppers. They look exactly like miniature pumpkins. Doe Hill Peppers are equally delicious raw or cooked, and they look lovely stuffed, if you can resist eating them long enough to seed 'em and stuff 'em! Artwork by Candice Smith Corby, whose recent work explores the comforts and tensions of domestic life and the acquired roles of women. She draws inspiration from children's games and imaginative role-playing.
It's hard to believe that one tiny seed packet could contain such a glorious grab bag of cherry tomato varieties! The Isis Candy Shop mix includes red, rose, gold, orange, and marbled cherry tomatoes in an equally wide range of shapes: plum, pear, lobed, and, well, irregular, or, as the HVSL catalog describes them, "unpredictably shaped." You won't know which shapes and colors you've got till they start fruiting, but the one thing that's not unpredictable is their flavor, which is sure to be sweet. Artwork by Amy Ross, whose art reflects her interest in religious studies, folklore and mythology. She is drawn to stories that provide explanations for the phenomena of the natural world.
Chamomile has been used for centuries to soothe frayed nerves and troubled tummies. Just the scent of chamomile flowers steeping in hot water makes me feel better! Those fragrant blossoms, which smell like fresh apples, are what inspired the Greeks to name this herb "chamomile" in the first place--it literally means "earth apples." Can an 'earth apple' a day keep the doctor away? Surely sipping a cup of chamomile tea is a more aromatic aid to relieve stress and indigestion than popping antacids or antidepressants. If you prefer a more potent brew, that's OK, too--chamomile flowers can also be used to brew beer! Artwork by Sarah Snow, a collage artist and designer of green packaging, from wrapping paper to shampoo bottles. Sarah designed the shape of the HVSL's ingenious Art Packs and does all of their lovely layouts.
Lovage is one of those mysterious plants most people have never even heard of, much less seen. It's rare even at the farmers' markets. So, you're missing out on an herb with a unique flavor; acclaimed British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describes it as "like parsley and celery combined with a hint of aniseed and curry." A little lovage goes a long way--back to some illustrious palates! Emperor Charlemagne ordered his gardeners to plant lovage at all of his residences, and Thomas Jefferson grew it in his legendary garden at Monticello. Why not roll out the red carpet for a green deemed indispensable by both The Father of Europe and our own Founding Father? Artwork by Lynne Bittner, who makes her living as an illustrator with her husband Richie Bittner. Combining her hand drawn illustrations with his digital wizardry, they have created Wildflower Graphics in Greenwich, NY.
The Teddy Bear sunflower is every bit as fuzzy wuzzy as its name suggests. Growing only about two feet tall, their shaggy golden blossoms make great cut flowers. But these teddies are so darned cute you'll feel more like hugging them than cutting them! It's like growing a mini-hedge of Paddingtons and Poohs. I'm going to plant a row along my front fence where their cheery faces are just the right height to greet the stroller-bound toddlers who roll down my street. Artwork by Kahn & Selesnick, who employ photography , painting and installation art to create fictitious histories set in the past or future, blending absurdist fantasy, elaborately crafted artifacts, costumes and sculpture.
KT: First, let's demystify the phrase "seed library" for those who aren't familiar with the concept. When our public libraries lend us books, we read them and return them in the same condition (hopefully) in which they were lent to us. But seeds? You stick 'em in the ground, they sprout and become plants. How the heck do you borrow and return a thing like that?
KG: Well, like the books in a library, every seed has a story. Hidden within their genes are historical, anecdotal, mythological, sacred, fictional, and non-fiction stories.
Just as people borrow the information and stories in books and then return them to the library, in the first incarnation of our seed library, people checked out seeds, grew their stories in their gardens, and returned new stories--the seeds they saved from the plants they grew. By cooperatively saving and sharing seeds between many gardens in the same area, we could preserve local heirlooms and create varieties suited to our regions.
People ask "what's an heirloom?" It's not necessarily indigenous, organic, or responsible--that just means it's an older "open-pollinated" variety. New OP varieties are the heirlooms of tomorrow. Heirlooms are not stagnant objects, they are living histories. Their ability to evolve as we grow them is their strength. We want to both preserve their legacy and allow them to change with us.
KT: You started the first seed library located within a public library in 1994, nearly a decade ago. What inspired you to do that?
KG: Peg Lotvin, who was the director at my local library in Gardiner, NY at the time, instilled in me the joy of gardening from seed. Sasha deBrul, a farm intern who frequented the library, opened my eyes to the terrible loss of genetic diversity and the dangers of GMOs. Sasha had started BASIL, the Bay Area Seed Interchange and Library, years before, and we had many conversations about community seed saving.
The threats to seed diversity and independence seemed overwhelming. I realized that I could do something about it by becoming a seed saver. But it wasn't enough--I wanted to do more. I saw that the democratic way that libraries share knowledge and stories could be applied to sharing seeds. Peg and Sasha enthusiastically supported the idea and helped make it a reality.
KT: What's changed in the last 9 years?
KG: When I started, many people--even experienced gardeners--didn't know about heirlooms, the threats to seed independence, or how to save seeds. Now, there's more awareness about the perils of GMOs and the importance of saving seeds.
We became the first online seed library in 2008. Now, our seeds are available to gardeners everywhere through our online catalog. We expanded our seed library program from sixty to more than one thousand members and started our own seed company with a full catalog of locally grown and sourced seeds which helps support our seed farm as well as education and training for farmers and gardeners. It also enables us to support community seed projects all over the country through seed donations.
Seeds are my life now. My original seed library idea became a mission to help farmers and gardeners achieve sustainability and independence. In just the last 3 years, I've heard of at least sixty new seed libraries sprouting up, plus many community seed banks, seed swaps, and seed exchanges. We've started a community seed saving timeline to track these encouraging developments (please contact us if you'd like your group to be included).
KT: The HVSL attracts new devotees every season, expanding a fiercely loyal fan base drawn by your passion for seed saving and sharing. How does the HVSL differ from other seed companies?
KG: Our goals are to revive regional seed, decentralize the consolidation of seed sources, and reclaim our seed sovereignty from the multinational chemical, biotech, and pharmaceutical corporations that currently control seeds and seed genetics. We believe in seeds for the people, by the people.
We do everything by hand: growing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and packing envelopes. So, we're preserving traditional seed saving techniques that anyone can learn, along with saving the seeds themselves.
Everything we offer is heirloom and open-pollinated. Anyone can save seeds from the varieties we offer, and reselect them to become more adapted to their region. We expand our seed production every year and are now engaged, through a SARE grant, in training local farmers to re-integrate seed production into small diversified farms.
KT: You commission a wonderfully eclectic array of contemporary artwork for your seed packets every year, which is as eagerly awaited as the seeds themselves. What role does the artwork play?
KG: Part of what we do is preserving seeds, but we don't just want them to lay dormant in a cold vault. We want them to grow and thrive. One way to celebrate their ever-evolving diversity is by commissioning art from an equally diverse group of artists. They help keep the culture in agriculture. Each artist gets one variety to interpret, so that each pack is designed by a different artist. Their interpretations keep the seed stories fresh. We call these our Art Packs--heirloom seeds and contemporary art all in one pack.
Nearly two hundred artists applied to be Pack Artists for this season's varieties. Just as we love finding deliciously interesting varieties to add to our catalog, we love discovering deliciously creative artists. Over the last 5 years, we've worked with close to eighty artists, and we'll be adding twenty new varieties and artists next year.
We believe that art is essential to healthy, sustainable communities, so we do all we can to support our artists. We pay for each commission and have a traveling gallery show of the original art, Art of the Heirloom. This year, two caring sponsors, Horticulture Magazine and Great Performances, helped us bring the show to more venues than ever. It's been to the Horticultural Society of New York, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the National Heirloom Expo, the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and over thirty galleries, community centers, libraries--even Sotheby's!
The art has opened doors for us, brought our seeds to places no seeds have gone before, and fostered connections between gardeners, farmers, eaters, activists, artists, art lovers, and others.
KT: What are the greatest challenges to seed independence?
KG: Lack of awareness, and complacency. The more gardeners and farmers understand what their seed dollars are supporting, the less money the biotech industry will have. But it's getting harder and harder to trace our seed dollars. Seed companies, most of whom buy wholesale from seed sources related to corporations engaged in biotech, won't disclose their seed sources.
Even some of the "feel good" catalogs still buy from sources owned by biotech corporations. We often get asked, "Do you sell GMO seeds?" Other seed companies get the same question. But though this question stems from good intentions, it's not the right question to ask, because any seed company geared to the home gardener can truthfully answer, "No, we don't sell any GE seeds."
But they're evading the heart of the question. Even though they don't sell GE seeds (which are mostly designed and marketed to large farms) they are nonetheless supporting GMOs by purchasing the seeds they resell to home gardeners from corporations that are responsible for the massive global loss of genetic diversity, the chemical poisoning of our soils and water, the patenting of life, and anti-organic and anti-GMO labeling propaganda.
Right now, the only way to support independent and sustainable seeds is to get your seeds from small organic seed companies (happily, there are a few more every year!) We've built up our following through farm tours, workshops, an active blog, our monthly Seeder's Digests newsletter http://visitor.r20.constantcontact.com/manage/optin/ea?v=001QOqrPM3hRDMo0k5vj05rRA%3D%3D), and an active Facebook page so that people can see what we do behind the scenes and get to know our little seed squad!
And, we do manage to get out of the greenhouse now and then to participate in local events. We'll be bringing all kinds of rare, handpicked heirloom vegetable and flower seedlings to the Catskill Native Nursery's Wildflower Festival and Heirloom Seedling Sale on May 18th & 19th.
KT: How do you see your role as a socially responsible business?
KG: We believe that businesses should be mission driven and support their communities. In every aspect of what we do, we strive to make the world a better place. For us, that means more than just organic farming practices. It also means creating jobs in our community, whether it's by commissioning artists, hiring seasonally out of work farmers to pack seeds by hand, having our displays made in America, or buying our cardboard shipping boxes from local sources.
We also give back to the community through seed donations and fundraising for worthy organizations.
KT: What gives you hope, despite all the obstacles?
KG: Seeds! Seeds are hope. Seeds have led me here, and connected me with inspiring gardeners, dedicated activists, talented and visionary artists, and conscientious growers. As long as we are saving and sharing seeds in any way--swap, library, bank, exchange, or responsible seed company--the power of seeds will endure. No matter what lies ahead, we will continue to keep seeds where they belong--in the dirty hands of caring gardeners.
Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrytrueman