The picture below shows an onion seed, an asparagus seed, and a penny. You can see that the seeds are quite small. Small is where I began and where I often must begin again.
I start with two seed trays, each having twenty-four compartments, each compartment is one and one-half inch square with a depth of two and one-half inches. I fill each compartment with my own concoction of potting soil, which consists of topsoil, cow manure, bio-char, peat moss, and a small amount of wood ash. I don’t measure precise amounts of each, I just put them in the large wheelbarrow and mix them until the consistency of the soil is light and fluffy. I don’t bother to check the pH value of the mixture, as I am an experimental farmer and thus far have been unwilling to spend money on a soil-testing meter. But I am reconsidering this based on newly acquired knowledge. Generally, I prefer to learn from my own experience and occasionally from others.
As an example of my obstinate experimental nature, although I am familiar with other people’s shared experience that tomato plants like full sun and warm temperatures, one year, as an experiment, I planted tomatoes in various spots around my ten-plus acre property. Some were planted deep in the woods, others on the dappled edges, some in full sunlight, and some in wetlands. I wanted to see for myself how the plants grew and what fruit they produced given varying conditions. I found out for myself that the common and hard-won wisdom of where to plant tomatoes was well founded, and I haven’t tried that exercise again. This is a quest for knowledge, or verification of knowledge, that I apply to many areas of my life. I am aware of the common wisdom, but I prefer to investigate so as to make it my own experience. Perhaps I am just a deeply rooted skeptic, but this works for me.
After the trays are ready, I carefully place one or two, at the most three, seeds in each compartment to ensure that at least one of them will germinate. If the seeds are years old, I am more generous with the number, as their vitality deteriorates over time if not kept in a controlled environment. After the seeds have been set and watered thoroughly, I place the tray on an electric heating pad. The combination of good soil, water, and warmth is very conducive to sprouting and vigorous root growth. Onion seeds will usually germinate within four to ten days, while the asparagus can take up to two months. Soaking the asparagus seeds overnight before planting is said to speed up the process, but I haven’t tried it. I tried a New Age approach whereby I stared at the asparagus seed tray while envisioning sprouting seedlings, but I can’t verify any positive results. It just made my eyes hurt.
After the seeds have sprouted, I then play the role of a god in the act of natural selection. Each compartment that has more than one seedling must be thinned to a single plant. I do this with a pair of tweezers and an awareness of my murderous intent. It troubles me to kill a plant that has just begun to live and has, I believe, a spirit. But it must be done, or none of them will thrive. I thin my friends, possessions, and experiences with the same ruthlessness at times. I do not have unlimited energy, and neither does the small amount of potting soil in each compartment.
When the seedlings that have been chosen have reached a height of two or three inches and have developed a strong root structure, it’s time to transplant them to one of the four soil beds in the greenhouse. These soil beds have been enriched with compost and a soil mixture that is a secret to me who mixes it. Using a sterling silver spoon, which I inherited from my dear late mother-in-law, I carefully persuade each small seedling out of the tray and plant it in the soil bed. The silver spoon signifies to the plant that I think this a sacred exercise.
When all have been transplanted, I water them lightly and offer up a short prayer for continued growth to whatever spirit is responsible for greenhouse plants. So many spirits, so hard to keep track of who is responsible for what.
Weeks later, the young plants are ready to be moved out of the carefully controlled environment of heat, humidity, and air flow and begin their life in the “real world”. I check the ten-day weather forecast looking to ensure that I select a day that is conducive to success. On the selected day, I dig each youngster out with care, but not as much care as when they were seedlings. They are now adolescents, and I trust that by being a bit rougher with them it helps prepare them for the harsher world outside the greenhouse sanctuary.
Carrying the seedlings in large grower’s pots or cardboard trays, I walk them to the garden and plant them in one of the raised beds prepared in advance for their arrival. The raised beds are eight feet long and four feet wide, so I can easily reach across for planting now and for weeding later in the season. Each singular plant is given its place, and again, when finished, I say a general prayer to the god of growing things or Mother Nature that they might thrive and bear fruit. I then water them thoroughly and leave them to establish and hopefully prosper.
I check them daily for the next few days and then every so often as the weeks progress. On the third week, I go to the garden one morning and find that some creature has torn apart the raised garden bed and dug up all the seedlings. What they haven’t eaten has been scattered about and the plants have withered and died in the open air and sun.
As I stand there gazing at the destruction, I recall all the painstaking effort and hours spent nurturing these small plants. So much time invested for nothing in return. So many prayers unanswered or answered incorrectly.
But if I am willing, and often I am not, what I can learn from these moments is the ability to see decay and destruction as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth. It is, quite simply, the universe unfolding and nature at work. I think it unwise to always prefer the light to the dark, growth over decay, and youth over aging. Both are essential, opposite sides of a single coin called life. This mystery is essential to how the world works. As Edgar Allan Poe once observed, “Never to suffer would never to have been blessed”.
The destiny of a seed is not always a plant. A seed may die along rocky ground, be choked out by weeds, or be destroyed by wind, sun, or rain. Destiny is not a destination, a place to ultimately arrive at, it’s the journey itself. The unwelcome fact that the result is not what was envisioned does not diminish the sanctity of the journey. The goal was never really the point, it was the process itself.
I was a mindful participant in the time spent from seed to garden. It would be foolish to discount and bemoan those hours because the results were not what I had hoped for. And there’s no sense in cursing the earth and my fate because what I helped bring to life is gone. There is no place I can go where my efforts will always be rewarded. There is only the effort.
Yes, I was sad about the destruction of the plants. Like a lamb lost in the woods bleating a cry for help, I called out to the spirits for explanation and solace. Sometimes comes the mother. Sometimes the wolf. We are expected to honor both.