Welcome to the Extraordinary Times Gardening Blog

The seed for the Extraordinary Times Gardening Blog was planted, appropriately enough, this year during my spring seedling sale.

For the six years prior, the sale was a low-key but enjoyable excuse to mess around in the dirt and meet fellow gardeners and neighborhood plant enthusiasts.

This year, it took on an entirely different shape.

The people who came to buy seedlings from me in the spring of 2020 were often in the process of starting their very first gardens. Quarantined and locked down, they needed a way to ground their uncertainty and nervous energy, and gardening provided the perfect outlet. Many of them arrived in face masks. And they brought loads of questions. So many questions that some didn’t even know what question to ask first.

Being a teacher and a helping type, naturally I wanted to help them. But where to start? They needed information on every single gardening topic, from water and light and soil requirements to variety selection to pest management to deciding between raised beds, pots, or tilling to ….. everything. But that information is available in abundance. Books and websites and online courses and Facebook groups — and these same folks’ gardening grandmas — were just waiting their chance to share their wisdom.

So I decided to offer something different.

A glimpse into some of the deeper philosophical aspects of gardening.

And the worldwide shift in how we think about food production.

And the people in fields, factories and grocery stores who are now risking their lives to ensure our food supply.

And the essential questions about what it means to grow food, at a micro or macro scale.

Enjoy, and thanks for taking this journey with me. i hope it sparks some questions for you as well.

Why I Didn’t Marie Kondo My Seed Collection and Why I Am Now Feeling Righteous About It

Let’s get something straight.

I am not a hoarder.

Honestly.

I do not have boxes filled with old lamp parts, expired calendars, and fabric scraps stuffed into all my closets. (Not all of them.)

And I definitely do not have a spare bedroom full of plastic bins whose contents I rarely inspect, let alone use. Ahem.

But when it comes to my seed collection, I am unapologetic.

If you were to poke through my freezer, you would find a clutch of plastic bags containing fistfuls of loosely organized seed packets. Wrinkled, dog-eared, rain-streaked, mud-splattered seed packets. They date back years.

To wit:

Green Glaze Collard, 10/2010.

Rainbow Blend Chard, packed for 2016.

Beet root seeds in a hand-labeled packet, date unknown.

Mesclun Gourmet Baby Greens (sell by 12/09).

One packet of turnip seeds, a “Tom Turnipseed for Attorney General” 1999 campaign promotion.

You get the picture.

But unlike many of the afore-mentioned items, these seeds came into their own this spring of 2020.

My side gardening gig is a spring seedling sale. I start seeds in my spare bedroom sometime in January, where they are gently nurtured on a heat mat, under grow lights, until the weather warms enough to move them outside. The sale starts as soon as folks start getting itchy to get into their gardens (any time from early March to mid-April, depending). I do a fairly brisk business until about Memorial Day, when things start to slack off.

It’s an enjoyable project. I get to engage in one of my favorite occupations — messing around with dirt and green growing things — while meeting fellow plant lovers from the neighborhood and putting a bit of extra cash in my pocket.

This year was different.

I posted the first notice for the sale on a few neighborhood Facebook pages in early March. One lonely “like” popped up, and languished there for several hours. I wondered if I had jumped the gun and posted too early. I needn’t have worried.

A few more desultory “likes” later, inquiries started flowing in. Then pouring in. Then escalated to a full-blown panic. People started stampeding to my Facebook page and my door to buy up every seedling I had. Within days I had sold out of everything and taken advance orders for other plants that wouldn’t be ready for weeks. I planted another round of seeds. Then another. Then I ran out of seeds and had to order more.

That’s when it hit me.

Every seed company was sold out of most everything, wasn’t taking orders, and/or had pushed back shipping dates amid posted notices about COVID-19 and wanting to keep their employees safe.

The reason?

Everyone wanted to start a garden.

It was apparent that this was part of the new zeitgeist.

I totally support people starting gardens, pandemic or not. But if I was going to have a seedling sale, I needed to have seedlings.

And frankly, I needed to shift my focus to something other than the anxiety and uncertainty that we were all swimming in at the time. So, apparently, did the people who were buying seedlings from me.

So I started digging in the freezer archive. And in that mess of packets, found a treasure trove of seeds that I had not planted before. Or had planted only part of the packet and stashed the rest away. This seemed like an ideal time to plant those seeds out and see what germinated.

It turns out that all kinds of seeds can germinate even after being stored for years. Keeping them under the proper conditions in cold storage is important, and it was to my (slightly smug) advantage that I had that factor covered. Those 10-year-old collard seeds? Germinated. Acorn squash, carrots and cucumbers from 2012? Ditto. Along with chard, dill, mustard, chrysanthemums, summer squash, lettuce, peas, watermelons, beans, and tomatillos of varying or unknown vintages, plus a couple of herbal oddities like licorice, holy basil, and soapwort.

And since local gardeners were having no more luck than I was in finding what they needed, either from plant nurseries or online stores, they also were beating a path to my door.

At the same time, a small economy of seed and plant exchange sprang up in our neighborhood Facebook gardening group. For a short while we were walking in the footsteps of our agrarian ancestors. Bartering cayenne peppers for red noodle beans. Tomatillos for sunflower seeds. Basil seed for shishito pepper. Borage seeds for mint. All that was needed to complete the picture were a few goats and some earthen pots.

And I was making discoveries in my own garden in the process. Those licorice seeds that had never touched previously touched earth sprouted beautifully, sending up rounded grayish-green leaves on a slender stem. Brilliant orange flowers tinged with bronze emerge from a compact marigold, a French type I hadn’t grown before, boasting lacy, fragrant foliage. The jagged peppery-tasting leaves of Shungiku chrysanthemums proliferate in a small patch at the bottom of the garden. A landrace cucumber variety is growing at lightning speed again, as though its seeds had not spent eight years in a brown envelope.

We are fascinated by these tiny germs of life, these small packages of power and magic that we can hold in our palm and that literally propagate the world.

I think about those seeds, biding their time in my freezer until their moment came — whether that was a year or ten in the future — when something nourishing or beautiful or simply spectacular will burst forth. At this time, perhaps more than any other in living memory, we need these reminders of the persistence of life.

Marie Kondo my seed collection? And miss out on all that?

No way. 

Gardening is Like Voting

I belong to several gardening groups on Facebook.  On these pages, certain kinds of questions are asked on a regular basis.  These questions are mostly variations on “what is this bug and should I kill it?”

Many who take the journey into the world of gardening do so with lovely pictures of gloriously abundant gardens dancing in their imaginations.  In these airbrushed spreads, nary a blade of grass is out of place, not a chewed leaf or aphid infestation.  There are no squirrels munching the tomatoes, no cabbage moths feasting on the kale, no wasp nests under the shed eaves.  And this, these gardeners (both new and seasoned) think, is the way it’s supposed to be.  Glossy perfection all the way.  

But the notion that it is possible to achieve perfection in a garden is a lie. 

A garden is an arena of competing interests.  

There is the aforementioned gardener’s interest.  

There are microorganisms that populate the soil to the tune of up to several hundred million tiny critters that would fit in an area smaller than a teaspoon.  They provide the plants the means to create their own food — an essential function.  Their work is carried out in the dark, largely invisible. 

There are the birds that provide insect control, prevent disease outbreaks in human populations by preying on parasites, and — assisted by multitudes of chipmunks, mice, rats, voles, and numerous other creatures — build forests by dispersing seeds far and wide. These forests capture carbon and produce oxygen that is literally the lifeblood of the entire planet. 

There are the insects that provide pollination services, and thus maintain a vital link between humans and nature by ensuring the availability of food.  And these include many more species than bees. The common housefly, for instance, normally regarded as a nuisance, is an important pollinator for crops such as mango and avocado.

There are lizards, voracious predators of ants, flies, spiders, beetles, crickets, snails, slugs, and even (for the larger varieties) the occasional small mouse. And one species of lizard — the Western fence lizard — neutralizes the Lyme disease bacterium carried by ticks, thus protecting humans from contracting the disease.  

And let’s not forget the weeds.  Weeds are defined as unwanted plants.  They may not be desirable in your garden, but in the lawn, they are a different story entirely.   Chickweed, henbit, purslane, plantain, dandelion, sorrel and clover mixed in with your boring-ass Bermuda grass provide a friendly habitat for butterflies and other pollinators, meaning that they will lay eggs there, ensuring a butterfly population for subsequent years.  These plants, in providing food and shelter for beneficial insects, keep down the numbers of “bad” bugs and reduce the need for pesticides. 

And if that’s not enough, they provide essential erosion control in these drier and hotter times, preventing the loss of precious topsoil that would otherwise blow away or be washed away by flooding or hurricanes.     

Relentlessly nuking weeds out of existence in the pursuit of monocropped, single-species vistas of emerald green lawn is anathema to the survival of the insect, bird and mammal life that provide all of those important environmental services.  

All of this ( and many more scenarios that I haven’t touched on) is what we sacrifice when we pursue a vision of perfection in the garden. When we reach for the Raid can at the first sign of undesirable insects, pummel our lawns and crops with Roundup, or sprinkle chemical fertilizers into our vegetable beds, we put all of those vital food web participants at risk. The result is a world with fewer pollinators, fewer tiny workers to perform all of those vital jobs that we take for granted.  There is not enough money in the world to pay for the services provided by all the members of the food web, free of charge, all year long, everywhere, in all weathers and under all conditions.

Gardening is like voting. 

Like a garden, a democracy includes many different kinds of participants.  

Factory workers. Artists. EMT’s. Government employees. Bankers. Truckers. Landscapers.  Preschool teachers. Construction workers. CEO’s.  Highway maintenance workers.  Short-order cooks. Auto mechanics. Farm laborers. Sanitation workers.  Bus drivers.  Nursing home staff. Baristas.  Mail carriers. Clergy. Home health aides. 

And legions more, at every income level, every level of job security and insecurity. 

Each doing their part to build, maintain, administer, and coordinate the complex engine of modern society.  

Most of them we don’t notice, or even think about.  But their work makes it possible for that engine to continue chugging forward. 

You think the work of a preschool teacher doesn’t affect you because you don’t have small children?  Well, the home health aide who cares for your grandmother may have kids. If so , she won’t be able to show up to her job if the preschool closes down because its government funding went away in a round of budget cuts.

You don’t take the bus?  The barista at your favorite coffee shop might, and if the bus driver is distracted because his insurance doesn’t cover treatment for his recent cancer diagnosis, that coffee server may be a victim of a bus crash. 

Don’t know anyone who works on a farm?  Doesn’t matter.  Every bite of food you eat is provided courtesy of farm laborers, 50% to 75% of whom are undocumented and whose work we are seldom aware of. But if the supply chain is disrupted because a few hundred workers have been deported — or come down with COVID — and tomatoes are rotting in the fields instead of filing the bins in the grocery store produce section, you better believe you’d notice that.

We depend on each other intimately in ways that we seldom stop to consider.  People who are nameless and faceless to us, yet enrich us and make our way of living, and in many ways even our ability to live, possible.  

Architects.  Security guards. School principals. X-ray technicians. Writers. Landscapers. Dancers. Sanitation workers. Veterinarians. Journalists. 

Postal workers.  Bankers.  Non-profit organization directors.  Steel workers.  Loggers. Interior decorators. Members of the military. Gig workers.  Dog trainers. 

And on and on. 

What if we thought about our vote like a gardener who thinks about their impact on the ecosystem?  

What if we chose our candidates with an eye to which ones will provide the most good to the most people?

What if we decided, rather than being “all about me” voters or gardeners, that we will instead look to what’s best for our society or garden as a collective?

When you kill the insects that you don’t think you need or want, it can result in fewer pollinators the following year, putting your bean or pepper or okra crop at risk. Or maybe it will send toxic runoff to your neighbor’s garden — that neighbor who brings you a bag of pears from their heirloom tree or armloads of zucchini every summer. 

Voting on the basis of narrowly defined issues can have devastating consequences for people in our community, most of whom we may never meet, but who are essential to keeping us clothed, fed, and housed, our children educated and cared for, our friends, family, neighbors and coworkers healthy and safe.

Those microorganisms working in the dark — fixing nitrogen, helping plants take up nutrients, providing raw material for antibiotic medicines — are invisible, yet our lives would be vastly impoverished without them.  Meaning no beer.  No sourdough bread.  No cheese, ketchup, or sauerkraut. And a whole category of pharmaceuticals put in short supply, victims of broad spectrum herbicides and a poisonous soup of agricultural chemicals.   

Those low-wage workers toiling in obscurity, also invisible, but without whose social, logistical and technical efforts, the engine of our modern society would falter and implode.   

Can we set a new standard in selecting our leaders — one based in care, compassion and big-picture thinking about what’s best for the health of our society and everyone in it?

I’d like to believe we can.

A candidate or policy is only as useful as their desire, intention and ability to help build a better society. 

A plant or organism is only as useful as its contribution to ecological balance. 

The American experiment — and its citizens — could stand to take a cue from the natural world.  

Maybe, in a garden as well as in a democracy, we need to toss the notion of perfection in the compost pile and focus instead on creating a space where competing interests are balanced by a focus on the common good, creating a country where everyone has the chance to thrive.

That just might be the most perfect outcome of all.