In the world before this one, the Master Gardeners in our area would organize field trips to visit nearby gardens and arboretums, or a group hike to see a rare flower in bloom. But when everything was covered in snow this February, the place to visit was the company that prepares the seeds we would plant come spring. Spouses were welcome, so my husband and I made the short drive to the far side of Asheville for a tour of the Eden Brothers Seed Warehouse where you can buy seeds by the packet or the pound. They call themselves, “The Seediest Place On Earth.”
Our last in-person class before the lockdown was a lesson on propagation that the instructors dubbed Sex In Your Garden, which is actually the title of a book. We learned there are two general types of propagation: sexual and asexual. Sexual propagation is the reproduction of plants by seeds.
For me, the most interesting part of the lesson was how seeds are dispersed. We mostly think of plants dropping their seeds nearby where they germinate and grow into a new plant. It happened in my garden when a seed of some variety landed in a pot of papyrus that was in our little pond last summer. I had stored the papyrus in the shed to overwinter – where it died by the way, but the seed survived and germinated. I planted it yesterday down by the street, although I’m still trying to decide exactly what it is. . .
Some plants have more clever ways to reproduce. For example, impatiens grow little curled capsules that build up tension as they develop so that when they finally dry out in early fall, they split and abruptly uncurl, flinging their seeds as far as possible from the parent plant.
Seeds are also carried around by animals. They attach themselves to fur or feathers, and then drop off down the road somewhere. Sometimes seeds are encapsulated in tasty, attractive fruit to encourage an animal to eat it. Once the seeds pass through the animal’s digestive tract they’re deposited through the animal’s waste. This sort of animal-dispersal strategy actually requires passage through the gut of an animal before they will germinate. At the risk of causing a boycott of these plants, cherries, tomatoes, and watermelon all follow this animal-dispersal strategy.
Ants are especially important in the dispersal of the seeds of plants like bloodroot, trilliums, and acacias. They carry the seeds back to their nest where they eat part of the seed, leaving the hard inedible part to germinate inside the nest or wherever the ant discards it outside the nest. The plants depend on the ants to disperse their seeds, while the ants depend on the plants’ seeds for food. If the numbers of one partner drop, it can reduce the success of the other. This happened in South Africa where the Argentine ant invaded and displaced the native ant species. The problem is that unlike the native ant, Argentine ants don’t collect or eat the seeds of the Mimetes cucullatus causing a dangerous decline of the plant in the areas the ants have invaded.
Seeds arrive at Eden Brothers Seed Warehouse from across the world in large bags where they’re divided into the small packets of seeds that we find at our local garden shops. One of the machines still used to automate this process dates to around 1910. While it was fascinating to learn how the seeds arrive and get sorted into all those packets, we were just as happy when the presentation ended because what we really wanted to do was shop.
The Master Gardening textbook claims, “Gardeners can save money and cultivate a rewarding hobby by saving seeds from plants in their own gardens.” Some day I am determined to give this a try, but there were so many seeds readily available at the warehouse. . .
We bought four varieties of sunflowers, red poppies, forget-me-not, everlasting pea seeds, and a quarter pound of wildflower seeds, and then spent the ensuing cold-weather weeks contemplating placement options. It’s hard enough to decide on a landscape design when you can see the plants in place, but take away the plants and it’s a pursuit of total imagery.
When it was warm enough to plant, we literally tossed seeds everywhere. The sunflower seeds are by the fence where they can reach tall toward the sun, the wildflowers cover a big part of left field and a smaller section of right field, poppies surround a planter by my husband’s shed, everlasting peas are by the rock wall, and for the life of me I can’t even remember where I put the forget-me-nots. That’s probably apropos.
A few weeks ago I also ordered a thousand Marigold seeds to protect the garden. The directions suggested to plant two seeds per plant, so I spent a full day counting out a thousand seeds two at a time. By the end of the day I had run out of places to plant marigolds.
The really fun thing about shopping for seeds is that you can buy the specific plant you want – not just the ones at the garden center. The down side is that there’s not an ounce of instant gratification in planting seeds.
After several weeks of waiting, there’s tiny wildflower seeds popping up in left field, but none to be found in right field. There’s evidence all around of the marigolds, but not a single showing of the sunflowers or poppies. And I don’t even know where to look for the forget-me-nots. Half the garden seeds have sprouted, the other half definitely have not. None of this has deterred us, yet.
Russet potatoes, white potatoes, bok choy, green beans, red onions, sweet potatoes, and banana squash seeds should be arriving in the next few weeks to finish off our garden. And a thousand mixed-color yarrow seeds are on order to help attract even more beneficial insects.
Twenty-Twenty is the ‘Year of the Seed’ at my garden, which is now officially one of the seediest places on earth.