Sparrow and Finch Gardening A Quest Inspired by the Pandemic Seed Shortage and a ‘Primal Fear’

A Quest Inspired by the Pandemic Seed Shortage and a ‘Primal Fear’

A gardener noticed that there was no seeds available to purchase, she was panicked and started asking questions. The book she has written offers solutions.

The diverse shapes and structures of seeds — including chunky buckeyes (Aesculus californica) and feathery milkweed (Asclepias) — caught the attention of Jennifer Jewell, a garden writer and podcaster, on her morning walks in Northern California.Credit…John Whittlesey

As the lockdowns for the pandemic began, Jennifer Jewell, who is a garden writer and podcaster, was on the East Coast speaking tour. Her and her companion, John Whittlesey, planned to leave the Butte County, Calif. home for several weeks, which is why they not made their usual spring vegetable-garden plans, such as purchasing seeds.

“Quick,” they thought, “find a way home — and find seeds.”

However, like every other turned upside-down in March three years ago was confronted with the warning “out of stock” on product after product catalog after catalog. In that moment it wasn’t just the pathogen’s new appearance that scared the Ms. Jewell.

“It was a really primal fear of, ‘Wait a minute, if we can’t get seeds, we can’t eat,'” she remembered.

Of course, she realized that was not the case. The couple grew some of their food but not all of it. The fact that they don’t have a garden didn’t help her. “There was this visceral — human, mammalian, lizard brain, whatever you call it — fear,” she said.

The increased sense of vulnerability led to an awareness that, however much she was aware of seeds, it was not enough.

A string of questions follows, beginning with the following question: What is the chain of supply that delivers seeds to gardeners? Are the major issues we are hearing of in the seed industry such as genetic engineering issues that should concern anyone who purchases organic seeds in the small catalogs of consumer stores?

“As a gardener, I felt like finding those answers and others should be part of my due diligence somehow,” she explained.

Ms. Jewell’s inquiry into seeds began during the early pandemic lockdowns, when she used her walks in rural woodland canyons to try “to see the seeds of my place more specifically and carefully, and with deeper observation,” she said.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

The quest for answers that she embarked on culminated in her latest book, “What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds,” to be published in September.

Her interest in the first months of the pandemic. She took early morning walks through the canyons and forests in Northern California, where she was attempting “to see the seeds of my place more specifically and carefully, and with deeper observation,” she wrote.

The most obvious, the buckeyes and acorns (Aesculus californica) were her entry point.

“Once you really see one plant’s seed, you begin to see seed everywhere,” she writes.

Additionally: “Know your forest and you will learn your cones, nuts and berries; know your cones, nuts and berries, and you will know your forest.”

Mrs. Jewell found herself wondering what of her indigenous seeds were edible as the majority of the seeds we eat originated in wild plants. Acorns, for example, are a traditional Native American food.Credit…Jennifer Jewell

Exploring Your Local Seedshed

Perhaps the thought of food security led her to investigate and research, Jewell was perhaps prompted by fears of food sensitivity. Jewell found herself wondering which seeds she had grown up with were edible.

According to the Welsh proverb she has pinned on her office bulletin board says, “A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”

She understood that our food seeds originated from wild species, therefore “this seemed like one of the disconnected pathways that maybe I could elucidate,” she explained.

Acorns, for instance, are a typical Native American food — like the fresh leaves as well as the pods and flowers from Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and the fruits from Manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Corms from the spring-flowering native bulbs she observed during her walks, such as different Triteleia, Brodiaea and Camassia are also food items.

Her dietary inquiry led to another inquiry: why there is such a gap between our natural habitat-style garden and the vegetable one? “They should be reconnected,” she declared, “because they are, in fact, born of each other.”

Each day, she would take a look at how the seeds were developing. Which was dispersing? How big would each get?

“I’m watching them like they’re friends,” she explained and offered this advice to others who garden, particularly during the summer months and autumn months: “Go out and explore what seeds are in your seedshed.”

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