Just this past October, the seed from a pink, wild banana (Musa itinerans), originating from China, was dutifully cleaned, labeled and set into semi-permanent cold storage in the United Kingdom as part of the Millennium Seed Project. For many of us gardening enthusiasts, the idea of a banana seed being suspended in time feels like a lost opportunity for the present (even though growing a wild banana would be a huge undertaking in most of the continental United States). For many of us banana enthusiasts, we are pleasantly surprised and puzzled to find out bananas actually have seeds. The significance of this particular seed is that it marks a considerable achievement for both the Millennium Seed Project, an international conservation project whose sole purpose is to provide an “insurance policy” against the extinction of plants in the wild, and the larger global effort to preserve biodiversity. With the interring of this unassuming wild banana seed, the Millennium Seed Project, launched in 2000, has succeeded in saving 10 percent of the world’s plant seeds (this came three months ahead of schedule) in their climate-change-and-apocalypse-proof seed vault. For most of us, the impact of this project will have little effect on us directly, but, like all insurance policies, there will come a time when we, our future generations, will inevitably have to cash out.
The scope and ambition of this project serve to illustrate the power and fragility of seeds. Sure digging your hands in the earth, planting a few sprouts and nurturing them to harvest is intensely gratifying, but seeds…well, seeds are the fountainhead, and these little nuclei have been slipping through our fingers for far too long.
Seeing that it is springtime in most of the United States (some places it is a bit more evident than others) and with spring comes thoughts of summer gardens, ripe tomatoes, peppers, and a riot of greens and legumes. While most novice gardeners opt to plant seedlings, or sometimes nearly matured starter plants, why not go to the source? The seed. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the few disappointing results I had experienced in the past with pepper seeds, tomato seeds, and the seeds of a pawpaw fruit; much of this was due to shortcuts taken and general ignorance. And there certainly is something to be said about the relative ease of growing a tomato plant from a starter (quicker, easier, and more reliable), but actually utilizing the source point of these amazing plants and, in some sense, both manipulating and facilitating nature is a powerful and transformative act for everyone/everything involved
Planting an edible garden from seed takes some effort and vision, and the approach will greatly vary depending on what part of the world you call home (residents of Maine will likely not want to start sowing seeds until late spring). Still, the site of young green shoots piercing the soil after many weeks of uncertainty is a reward in itself. But seeds, being fragile little life forms, need protection from frost, vermin, and the like.
For the home gardener lacking a heated greenhouse, there are two main ways to start seeds under protection: indoors (in a sunny spot) or in a cold frame. A cold frame is a simple structure (usually made with a wood frame and a clear plexiglass top) that allows light to get through to the developing seeds, but keeps out the damaging cold. I am already making it sound way more complicated than it really is, but if you consider it a fruitful (forgive the pun) project that will ultimately yield great rewards (and a side salad to boot) the effort will surely be eclipsed by an enviable garden.
Check out these useful resources for tips on how to get started and maintain a seed-based garden:
The Garden Helper
American Community Gardening
Have you ever had any luck planting from seeds (a Chia Pet doesn’t count)? Is it not worth the hassle in your opinion? Have you ever saved seeds from year to year? Please share your experiences.