Diane Ott Whealy makes her home in Decorah, Iowa, where she is the cofounder and vice president of education at Seed Savers Exchange. Her new book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, will be released in May 2011. The story chronicles her life of homesteading; nurturing children, gardens, and seeds; and maintaining sanity and a sense of humor while helping grow the largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind in the country.
Here at Heritage Farm, the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, we look for our own signs of spring. There are the obvious omens: the snow-packed roads giving way to muddy ruts, the trout stream breaking free from the ice and flowing briskly down the twin valleys, spotting the bluebird scout, and opening up the greenhouse. But there are also more subtle hints long before the snow melts.
The sight of visitors arriving at Heritage Farm after negotiating Iowa’s treacherous winter driving conditions—trucking through drifting and blowing snow wearing winter parkas, snow boots, and warm gloves—ironically indicates warmer days ahead. These folks turn up displaying signs of contagious enthusiasm and carrying battered, dog-eared catalogs with a few coffee spills and sticky notes protruding from the edges. They are holding the Seed Savers Exchange 2011 Catalog of heirloom seeds, offering everything from ‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherry to ‘Rat-Tailed’ radish—in all nearly 600 varieties of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. They have done their homework, marking up pages with arrows and checks, studying photos, reading the stories to finalize this years order. After all, in greenhouse time, they will need viable transplants of hardy annuals like cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, and sweet peas in 8 weeks. Potatoes will be planted on Good Friday. They will also need their packs of spinach, beets, lettuce, onions, radishes, and carrots—anything that can be directly sown in the ground immediately on that first 50-degree day.
So with all these signs of spring, which one do you think is the most reliable in 2011? I have a hard time deciding between the visitors and the chickadee. The sound of a bird singing in subzero temperatures was a magic moment, yet seeing gardeners eagerly leaving Heritage Farm with a handful of seed packs is also hopeful. Both are feeling their biological instinct to prepare for warmer days ahead even as nature tries to confuse us with freezing temperatures and snow. The bird has millions of years’ experience and knows it is not too early to sing a song to lure a mate, build a nest, lay eggs, and raise its young. Similarly, our own spring fever spurs us to start plotting gardens, knowing another garden will grow to give us pride, pleasure, and food. We and the chickadee are both trusting the unknown and unseen to guide us toward warmer days.
For more information and inspiration for this year’s garden, check out our website: seedsavers.org.
Photo Credit: David Cavagnaro