Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seeds at the Chicago Botanic Gardens - Herb of the Week

On Feb. 23, I went to a lecture by Ken Green of Hudson Valley Seed Library at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  They had a seed swap where I picked up three or four varieties of Nasturtiums and some other seeds.

The selection of herbs was lacking but I had a great time jockeying for seed anyway.  The lecture, however, was actually my highlight.
Chicago Botanic Garden Seed Swap Volunteers giving advice

I attended the lecture 2 years ago when they had Diane Ott Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange and enjoyed the idea of saving seed and discussions of biodiversity.  This year the lecture took a different tone as there was a focus on paying attention to where your seeds come from and recognizing that asking if the seeds are Genetically Modified (GMO) is not the key to getting to the root of where your food comes from.

Ken Green and Lisa Hilgenberg (CBG horticulturist)
Ken Green was a down to earth guy whose focus to provide a mission-based business and be a socially aware entrepreneur is evident in everything he says.  A former librarian he created the first seed library where a person could "borrow" seed and plant and grow the seed and then return that seed and more to the library for others to try in the future.  There are now hundreds of seed libraries across the nation.  His focus slowly changed from sharing seed to preserving seed and how to create the best techniques for growing seed that is true to variety and the best example of a particular plant for his growing season.  He was also interested in the biodiversity of seed grown say in California, and its ability to grow in the colder climate and shorter growing season of his native upstate New York.  This
Photo courtesy of Hudson Valley Seed Library
focus on farming to produce good seed makes his garden much different than mine.  Now as an herb gardener I do not focus on seed, heck I cut the flowers off at every opportunity, so even the images of his garden looked off to me.  They focused on luscious seed heads and very little foliage.

What I loved about his presentation is that he linked seeds to stories and art.  That the "history" of a seed is not about the day it was introduced or the historical setting it became popular in, but rather the personal story of the seed itself.  Who used it, how they used it, who hybridized it or did simple selection to craft the best seed.  In his example it was a bean for making baked beans, and how a community used those beans in every social situation in a town by making and serving the baked beans, with a recipe from someone else and seasonings from another person was a wonderful narrative of the importance of seeds in everyday life. These stories of how someone decided to choose a seed that looked like that or grew that style of plant is of importance to the history of our culture as any other historical situation.  At this point he tapped into my inner museum curator who often lays dormant these days and made my decision to grow herbs that much more interesting!

He also spoke of seeds as art.  The "Art" is not just the wonderful way that Hudson Valley Seed Library solicits original art to place on their seed packets, but seed as a catalyst for thinking about seed as an artistic expression.  For example if you saved seed from a plant or flower because you loved the way it looked or tasted, you are preserving and passing along your aesthetic -- your art.  He gave a quote by Elizabeth Murray:   "Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas."

He said something early on in his talk that I found extraordinary, many people have no idea that the foods they eat once originated from seeds.  Now I have known that in some cases there is a disconnect between say "cow" and "ground beef," but I never through there was one between seed and plant or vegetable.  Could that be because I was introduced to seed so early in my life that I knew you could grow flowers and vegetables from seed, that I grew my sweet corn, peppers and tomatoes as a child from seed I picked out myself from the bins at the feed store in town.  I never gave a moment's consideration to the fact others did not experience what I had.  This gave whole new meaning to the one seed program I knew about and promoted in Chicago.

Now back to the underlying theme of the lecture.  Know where your seed comes from.  In other words do not ask "Does my seed company sell Genetically Modified seeds?" (almost all do not.)  But rather does the purchase of these seeds from this company benefit companies that will use the "seed money" to create GMOs that will be used by those who place food in my food supply.  This is a tougher question and requires being a more informed consumer.

Ken Green with shoppers talking about his seeds

He asked those of us there from the blogging community to consider, who do we recommend for our readers to use as a seed company and have we done our homework about those companies?  Because consumers will rely on those of us who give advice to have done our homework so they can spend more time planting and less time researching.  Look for a new post on recommended seed companies from me very soon!

Among his final questions was - "Which story do you want to grow?"  This has sent me off on a wonderful journey of thought that I believe will make this gardening season a whole new adventure.  

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