At first, the process is intimate. You, alone in your greenhouse, bundled up against the cold, seeding alliums. Outside the window, the world is still sleeping. A brave bird calls forlorn, oddly exposed on a naked branch, perched over the patchy snow. You scatter a small scoop of hard little lumpy seeds across the top of each pot and cover it lightly. The whole thing just seems so implausible, flat after flat of plain brown soil stacking up on the shelves.
“There’s no way this can work again!” you think.
You water and wait. A week goes by, sometimes more, and you’ve almost forgotten there was anything in those pots. But then, a single blade, bent against itself, pushes through the soil, like a lone oboe squeaking out clearly in a quiet theater while the entire orchestra waits in captivated silence behind it. It creeps taller, millimeter by millimeter, finally breaking free, heaving the shell of its seed out of the ground and lofting it overhead like a trophy. Others follow, first timidly, then boldly by the thousands, waving the black pompons of their seed skeletons in the air like chaotic fireworks dancing in chorus. Flat after flat, they sprout and grow–Brassicas, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, filling the shelves and saturating our dull winter eyes with impossible vibrancy.
Of course, the real magic happened underground, before that first blade showed itself to the world above. As the water seeps in to soak the soil around the waiting seed, it begins to soften the seed’s protective shell. The parched seed, which has lain dormant and thirsty for so long, starts to drink in water through its hilum bellybutton. As the water quenches the seed, its radicle root starts to grow, and soon it busts through the seed coat, springing the plant to life once again. That radicle plunges deep into the soil, anchoring it and beginning to slurp up food from the soil. The plumule shoots steadily upward until it bursts through to the light, unfurling its cotyledon leaves to bask in the sun and be nourished. And thus, the seed is born a plant.
Seeds have a way of knowing when the time is right. It’s a matter of life and death, whether the world is ready to support the seed once it sprouts, so each seed carries a built in intelligence to know when it’s time. Some seeds in the desert will lie dormant for months, years, or even decades, waiting for the perfect conditions to make a go at their one chance at life. Garden seeds, having co-evolved with doting human caretakers, are more trusting. As long as we place them at the right depth, and provide them the right temperature and moisture, they’ll sprout, throwing their survival into our hands. “I trust you,” they say with each sprouting cotyledon. And so we engage in the centuries-old dance between faith and doubt that is agriculture, partnering across vast kingdoms of life to nourish another species.
It’s happening outside now, too. Spring is the whole world waking up, sprouting seeds dotting every available surface, from the furrows in the fields to the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s such a blindly optimistic thing to do, putting hard little lumps into rows of bare brown ground. Yet here they come, by the hundreds, then the thousands, almost invisible at first. Then one day you arrive at your farm and the whole thing wears a blanket of soft green. The symphony is in raucous crescendo now, all the horns and the toms and the violins have joined in fully and are climbing toward the joyful cacophonous climax of summer.
Charles Darwin once counted 527 individual seeds in a single teaspoon of pond soil, each with the potential to create millions more of itself over generations. Though each one is precarious in itself, as a whole, the process is unstoppable, seeds cracking open and leaves climbing insatiably forward, eating the sun and multiplying ever more surely as roots do the same. It’s one of the grandest feats on earth, and one of the most miraculous for the gardener to behold–the humble seed splitting apart and bursting forward into the light. As author Cynthia Occelli describes, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. For someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
And yet all around us, countless spring seeds coming undone bring the promise of another bountiful season. Thanks be to the sprouting seeds!