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  • Lia Babitch

A Year in Seeds 

A Year in Seeds 


By Lia Babitch 


Tree shadows stripe the snow in steep hillsides as I walk to work in the bright winter sun. The cold tingles my fingers and nose. In the gray, white, blue, and brown landscape, it is my winter work to see the summer ahead: the green walls of the forest will enclose us, the earth will exhale its warm scents, the cicadas will rasp their joy to the summer nights, and our gardens will fill with activity. Now, as I write, the snow peacefully covers the lively, crystalline anticipation of the winter soil. The bare trees patiently await the slight breath of warmth, which signals the sap to rise and the growing season to begin. 


In the Turtle Tree seed shop, the winter season’s work is in full swing: order filling, certifying, seed cleaning, budgeting, teaching, and planning. Seeds keep us busy year-round. It is hard in the winter to imagine the joyful frenzy of co-creation that will take place as soon as the first seedlings sprout. And yet, along with the many hours of paperwork supporting it, this imagining is part of our winter work. 


There is great excitement to be had in the winter, picking seed packets off the shelf to fill orders. Each packet put into a customer’s order box adds to the growing picture of their future garden, which was, in the fall, just a collection of printed paper and potential. Onions are the first seeds to go into the ground, usually the week before Candlemas, the Christian Holiday, and the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. Although it will be a long time before the next seeds are planted, a noticeable shift occurs. The seeds of last season are now turning towards the future. Peppers, physalis (ground cherries), and eggplants come next - lovers of heat - protected in the greenhouse by additional hotbox coverings and heating mats. Slowly, the greenhouse becomes the focal point for our summer hopes and plans. The overwintering biennials, who have kept green through the deep cold, now begin to shake off winter. Even in February, the greenhouse can be summer-warm when the sun shines. 


March fills the greenhouse tables with trays and the mail crates with orders - more urgent now that the season is upon us. Delicate white flowers of ‘Miner’s Lettuce’ give way to cascading seeds held over green cups and succulent stems. The honeyed scent of beet blossoms fills the air. Seed growing shows the unknown lives of crops we thought we knew but had only begun to meet. The sweet fractals of bolting chenopods (goosefoots) are unknown to most vegetable growers. Aphids come, especially to the flowering brassicas, and ladybug larvae steadily eat and shed, grow and eat, keeping the balance. Before April's arrival, we will already need to tie up towering beets, kale, parsley, and celery, plants shooting up from vernalized hearts, ready to seed and start the future. 


Every gardener needs to be an optimist; the past year’s mistakes inspire change for next year. Next year will be better! Next year, we’ll plant that cover crop in time! Next year, we’ll try a new mulch, which will be wonderful! Next year, we’ll plant enough (insert plant of choice, which suddenly everyone loves) and not grow as much (insert plant of choice, of which there is always too much in the CSA boxes)! Next year, the sun will shine enough, and the rain will be gentle and sufficient without flooding! Next year, our garden will flourish! And we will definitely keep on top of weeding! We move forward, learning through the perfect imperfections — the unexpected blooms of insects, which have never been this far North before; the July so wet that no hay could be harvested for an entire month; the late-arriving dry spring and frantic early irrigation set-up while planting; the tedious gray hum of mildew over squash leaves. 


For seed growers, these are all indications of our direction, pointing out the need for growth, for selecting plants that not only taste good and are nourishing and abundant but can also start to respond to the new worlds opening ahead of us. We are co-creating a future, as seeds and their human partners have for untold millennia. Growing, harvesting, and planting seeds is the most glorious, direct line from the past into the future that I know of. All the birds who sang perched on the corn stalks as summer evenings gentled the heat of the day; all the floods and droughts, all the human love and reverence of the past are part of the present point of inflection, the springboard to what will be next. All this is in the seed grown in every summer garden, every fall hoop, and every spring cold frame or high tunnel. 


In May, the mad dash begins. The time between cold and cold is infinitely precious in our short northern summers. With luck, peas were put in during the March thaw, and in April, a few bold plants would have braved the possible snow and capricious temperatures. Some beds were prepared, and then…May! Everything must go! The greenhouse tables must empty in a choreographed dance of hardiness, and as the final melons and eggplants are put under row cover in the sweet, loamy, stony earth, May comes to a close. The last orders come in, stragglers who forgot this bean or wanted another succession of that lettuce. Fall brassicas are ordered, and a brief flurry of indoor activity happens in June, while outdoors, we turn to structure: fencing, netting, and roofing with the clear corrugated panels that protect vulnerable lettuce flowers as they open, already pollinated from within.  And, of course, our gardener's job insurance: weeding. 


When one of the three fields is wonderfully tidy at long last, suddenly, we find that another is inundated with what my colleague, Ian, calls “Mother Earth’s green mantle.” The peas are dry and ready to harvest, the lettuces too…and don’t forget to sow the overwintering biennials! And…and…and! The melons are ready.  It’s a tough job eating melons…I mean, uh…processing melon seeds. The crew is always happy to help. Flower seeds are ripening. Is it August already? Beans are brown and ready - quick, get them inside before the rain, or they will sprout in the pods. The drying lettuce seeds are tall bridal bouquets of downy white, ready to thresh. Check the herb garden for seeds starting to form, harvest tomatoes and scoop the juicy, gelatinous seeds so they ferment. Round, browny-orange footballs of cucumbers need scooping and fermenting also to free the seeds from their gel seed coats. And what’s happening with the weeds? Did we get the empty beds planted with cover crop? If we leave it for a week, it will need to be weeded again before we can plant. Don’t forget to check the watermelons, which rise like porpoises in a weedy ocean. Lettuce roofing can come down, pea fencing is in the shed but needs tidying, and bean poles need untying and putting away. September is almost gone. The irrigation can come out of the fields. Are the last squashes growing ripe? The last flower seeds? And again, it’s catalog preparation time. 


What has the summer brought? What is coming in from other places near and far? What can we count on from our own fields? The abundant parsnip seed is already starting to sprout in the field where our harvesting dropped loose seeds - will it germinate in a testing chamber? The thresher hums every dry day, alternating light-seeded lettuces with beans, then dark-seeded lettuces. The last tomato harvests are being scooped. The red peppers, sweet and hot, are collected daily to be deseeded, the flesh taken home for roasting or for hot sauce to bring warmth in winter. Drying shelves with carefully labeled brown paper linings proliferate with life, with seed. Sunflower seed heads are gently taken apart, leaving behind an ever-astounding geometry of space-efficient seed holders. Seed cleaning begins in earnest. 


The end of October has arrived, and the design process for getting the new catalog to print is nearly complete. Cover colors finalized, photos found, articles written, offerings checked and rechecked. Website updated. Packets filled with cleaned and tested seed, their descriptions, germination rates, and certifications in tidy lines on each. They are now ready for the next garden to be imagined as we pick the new orders in the coming year. Throughout the year, we observe the plants and their surroundings closely, what is happening in the hedgerows and the forests surrounding us. In the winter, we look to the stars and study. In the summer, we look to the sun, moon, and zodiac in their heavenly dance. Throughout the summer, when the soil is turned towards the new planting, and especially when the days are dry, we spray the biodynamic preparation 500 and barrel compost to support the soil health on the fields. For us, this is usually done on a weekly Friday rhythm. As crops begin to ripen, finer and more individual attention is needed to see when we will rise before the sun and meet its misty morning glow with our own mist of biodynamic preparation 501, which brings the warmth of the sun into the plants to enhance the flavor, ripening and good storage qualities. Biodynamic preparations are added each time the compost is turned to enhance its life-giving richness. We are blessed with the ingredients to make all these preparations and our compost from our farm. And through the year, this has been our mantra, self-made mandate, and joy: Every day, to see something new. Every day, to be learning. 


Lia lives and works at Camphill Village in Copake, NY, an integrated community where people with developmental differences live a life of dignity, equality and purpose, caring for each other and the earth; she can be reached at turtle@turtletreeseed.org.

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