by Heather Phaneuf

I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seed 1860-61

I had a wonderful coffee last week with a “green” friend which ended happily with us touring her garden. This was perfect, as isn’t it the best of all things to nurture and cultivate a space, then to share it in some way, or two? Bliss.

But what stopped me in my explorations were these dark, purply round fruit hanging down from withering late-summer stems in large pot. Were they mini-eggplants?  This of course caused me a moment of real irritation as my eggplants had teased me all summer by producing gorgeous flowers and then…nothing.  But that’s another story.

That feeling quickly dissipated as knowledge was enthusiastically shared over a growing bed – a most excellent habit of gardeners! My friend introduced me to a Blueberry Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum “blueberry”.  Wow!  And that maybe, just maybe, it actually punched higher by weight than actual blueberries in antioxidants. What!?  When, oh when, does the global garden stop amazing us? I left with a small orb of possibility in my pocket – a mini-tomato whose seeds are being dried and stored for next year’s garden. A grand experiment on my part which got me thinking about the littlest of things that we share from our own gardens – seeds and neighbourly connections.

My first seed encounter was in the backyards of Montreal North where I grew up.  A culturally rich WWII community – immigrants from Europe and us, Canadian anglophones and francophones – all living in duplexes and triplexes overlooking yards where neighbours chatted in accented excitement over long wooden fences.  My mom loved that back balcony as it gave her the ability to watch over not just the two of us, my brother and me, but those neighbourhood gardens that rose from warmer climes and traditions.  They stood apart from ours with its one Maple tree and sprawling play area, as those other places were lush with a hands-on take on how to provide food for families. And roses.

In those gardens, the seasons would be marked by seedlings that had been nurtured through the late winter months, whose bright shoots were tied to poles in regular rows culminating in time to a tasty burst of harvest. A great botanical gathering gave rise to the rolling sound of wine casks emerging from basements and the aroma of tomato sauce thickening on stovetops. Sauce that had a bold tendency to dance a quick step up the stairs, over the balcony and into our kitchen. Recipes followed as the fence-talk continued.

Once the cooking frenzy was over there was another domestic science experiment going on and it too rolled out in basements.  My neighbour, an immigrant from Italy, knew I was a curious kid and took me down the stairs to that family’s basement one perfect day.  There, spread out on brown paper, were hundreds of tomato seeds that had been sorted to type, dried and would be stored for next summer’s promise. The garden brought a curious community together, built on the experience of the past and kept in high regard the potential of seed – a knowing that my neighbour finetuned by observing year-to-year.

Seed is amazing. At the most basic level, viable seed means we’re ensuring the continuation of the wide variety of plant species and of global food sources.  Everything is held within the seed – an embryonic plant mapped by DNA, supported with protein and starch. Think about it – everything needed for the processes of germination, vegetation and reproduction is tucked into these distinct, botanical packages.  Along with that, we’re also saving the memory of people and plants we have known intimately as we sowed, germinated and waxed poetic about the plants outside.

Seeds and the importance of ensuring that our shared agricultural and botanical history – and future – are saved, takes place through our own garden seed saving from each season to the next, but on larger scales as well. Massive projects save seeds from all over the world such as the Crop Trust Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago – also known as the  Doomsday vault – or through not-for-profits like Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Mind-boggling.

When you save a seed, you save so much more than just a memory from last year’s garden, you hold a unique, biological being – a proto-plant in your hand.  Here life begins and when the growth cycle continues to a logical conclusion, the future is ensured by seed.

In the Book of Seeds, Paul Smith says: “For people, mastering the storage and manipulation of dormant seeds paved the way for agriculture and continues to determine the fate of nations.” We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it?