Many people believe vegetable gardening is therapeutic—that getting their hands in the soil is good for mind and body. But in decades past, as grocery stores started offering a wide array of produce and aisles and aisles full of convenience foods, we began to lose some of that connection. We didn't have to grow food anymore. Luckily, there's a movement back to the land—even if that land is just a small plot behind a suburban home or even a pot of soil in a container on a city balcony. And the beginning of all the life that will emerge from those tended plots is seeds, little pods of energy just waiting to connect with the earth. Working with seeds is built into our DNA.
"It's kind of like our birthright; all human beings, it's programmed into us," says seasoned farmer and poet Scott Chaskey, author of Seedtime, a new book about the history, husbandry, politics, and promise of seeds. "But when the industrial era came about, we retreated further and further from the garden." Seeds serve as that common ground, our connection to our ancestors, who had to grow food and garden to live. "What I love about being part of the movement back to it is that more and more people are learning what it really means, and how it can extend into all realms of health," Chaskey says.
Whether you're a seasoned gardener or are just beginning, trying to figure it all out, it's important to pay special attention to the seeds you purchase, particularly if you want to grow organic food for your family. (If you're not growing food but looking for organic food, it's still important to find food grown without the use of certain seeds.) Centuries ago this was never a problem, but today chemical corporations have infiltrated the seed industry, putting many small mom-and-pop seed companies out of business. The history part of Seedtime goes back to late 19th century, a time when the purpose of land-grant colleges was to disseminate seeds for free to the American population.
"If you start with that and fast-forward to less than 100 years later, laws are being passed that consolidated the seed industry and took seeds out of the hands of individual farmers." In fact, seeds are not only being patented, but corporations that sell seeds are actually suing farmers, even if their patented seeds blew into the farmers' fields by accident. "To be in an era when one company controls 27 percent of world's seed trade, in my mind, that's a pretty big problem," Chaskey says.
Today, land-grant colleges have changed drastically; many now receive lots of funding from companies that produce genetically engineered seeds. Luckily, Chaskey sees some universities and nonprofits running programs to save open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Just like animals, plant species, even vegetable varieties, can go extinct. Seed diversity is so important because some could hold genetic traits that can survive major plant diseases that could threaten the food supply in the future.
"Almost every type of vegetable, we've lost 90 percent or more of the varieties," Chaskey says. "It's an astonishing figure. Interestingly enough, there probably is more diversity out there than we know about. It's happening in small gardens everywhere, and surfaces in small exchanges like Seed Savers Exchange."
To find seeds that help preserve diversity and sustainable farming and plant breeding, use these tips:
• Look for companies like High Mowing Seeds, with 100 percent of their seed offerings certified organic!
• Support The Organic Seed Alliance to preserve high-quality, organic agricultural seed.
• Check to see if the Native Seeds/SEARCH is bringing its seed school to your area, and sign up for a class if they are!
• Shop Seed Savers Exchange for rare, heirloom seed varieties.
• Support seed companies that take the Safe Seed Pledge. That means they've committed to not selling any genetically engineered seed.
• Avoid seeds pretreated with chemicals. Those chemicals are often systemic and can wind up inside of the food you eat.