Growing a kitchen garden in the most literal sense: a crop borne of the pantry instead of the usual seed catalog.
For an all-purpose garden tool, you can’t beat a full set of molars. Andrew Montain, a 28-year-old urban farmer, presented this theory the other day in my kitchen as he rolled a nutmeg seed in his hand like a gobstopper.
“I want to crunch into this with my teeth and see what happens,” he said. Maybe it was a shell. Maybe it was a whole seed. He was eager to find out, but first he had a question: “How’s your liability insurance?”
I had invited Andrew to my home in St. Paul not to test his dentition, but to conduct a botanical experiment: If we plopped this nugget in a tray of dirt, would it grow into a nutmeg tree?
What I was imagining was a kitchen garden in the most literal sense: a crop borne of the pantry instead of the usual seed catalog.
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For generation after generation of farmers, the staple crops we ate at the table — wheat and barley, maize and beans — were the same seeds we sowed in the fields. They were descendants of the first semi-wild crops that had more or less “‘volunteered’ for domestication,” as Peter Thompson, the British conservationist, wrote in his 2010 book, “Seeds, Sex and Civilization.” These seeds “germinated rapidly, completely, and at low temperatures.”
Today’s farmers, with their pedigree seeds, grow foods that are bigger and more bountiful than the peasant crops of the past. The viability of the seeds these cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables produce, though, is an afterthought.
Yet whether out of nostalgia or novelty, the home gardener likes to tinker with the old ways. The “Don’t Throw It, Grow It Book of Houseplants,” published in 1977 and reissued a few years ago, introduced readers to dozens of seeds that could jump from a dinner plate to a planter. And one of the book’s authors, Deborah Peterson, advanced the cause by founding the Rare Pit and Plant Council (http://the_pits_web.tripod.com), a New York-based gardening club.
The group’s newsletter, The Pits, seems to have fallen fallow. So I started from scratch in the spice drawer, with nutmeg, mustard seed, poppy seed and cardamom. In theory, at least, any of these spices could sprout into a seedling. Next, I raided the cupboard, collecting figs, dates, red beans and chickpeas. Finally, I Dumpster-dived the crisper for grapefruit and ginger.
These foodstuffs led a double life, like Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Before they were clean and dry and double-bagged, they had idled in a distant cow town.
As American consumers, we’ve become alienated from the life cycle of our food. And we’re supposed to feel ashamed of that. But then again, agriculture is a complicated global industry. By comparison, we feel no such compunction to understand where our iPhone comes from.
I, for one, had never seen a lentil plant. As I learned from the Internet (and how, pray tell, does that work?) a lentil is a grain legume, or “pulse,” that will grow to a foot or two in height. The plant self-pollinates and blossoms from the bottom up. The flowers are white, lilac or pale blue.
As it happened, I had picked up a bag of French lentils to make dal. What color would these seeds bloom? I scooped up a spoonful and added them to the kitchen seed bank.
By the time Andrew arrived, the table was cluttered with bottled herbs and drybeans and oddments that I had collected from the bulk bins at the grocery store. For the name alone, I had even picked up a stash of something labeled “sprouting alfalfa seed.” If I couldn’t get this stuff to germinate, I’d exile myself to FarmVille.
The sheer variety of food had Andrew thinking about a teaching from Shunryu Suzuki, his favorite Zen master.
“‘In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities’ — that’s you,” he said. “But in the expert’s, there are few.”
Having chewed over the mystery of the nutmeg and failed to crack it, the expert turned to Google. Apparently, our seed had already shed a shroud of red skin — mace spice came from this aril — and an overcoat of fleshy fruit. Studying the pictures, Andrew concluded that maybe his molars had been the wrong tool, after all.
What this job called for was a pair of nail clippers and a glass of water.
“You have to create some kind of hole for water to get into it,” he said.
He nicked the side of the nutmeg and then dropped it into the glass. Apparently, following a manicure, what a seed likes best is a spa treatment.
A large seed, like the nutmeg, could soak overnight, imbibing water to soften the outer coat. A smaller seed might be ready in an hour. Inside, the fertilized embryo of a plant would swell and then germinate.
Next, Andrew turned to the beans. We could pierce these seeds just about anywhere, he said. But we would want to avoid the divot in the red bean that ran along the inside seam. This is where the root tip would emerge.
Or perhaps wouldn’t emerge. Call it a conspiracy theory, but apparently the international food-production system does not want my red beans, or other seeds, to sprout. A little moisture in a shipping container can spoil tons of dry goods. So processors routinely treat spices to preserve them for packaging. Some are flash-frozen and vacuum-dried, others steam-heated and sterilized.
And then there’s irradiation. This process bombards the surface of the food with high-energy electrons, gamma rays or X-rays, exterminating pathogens like E. coli, listeria and salmonella. The food does not become radioactive; by eating it, you will not become the Incredible Hulk. But a high enough dose will kill the living tissue in a plant or seed.
How could I tell if my mustard seed had been irradiated? Items like ground beef or papaya must be labeled with the phrase “treated by irradiation” and the Radura logo, a kind of disembodied flower with an atom for a head. But under Food and Drug Administration rules, spices require no such marking, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Osterholm said he believes educated shoppers will prefer the safety of irradiated foods, and should be able to identify them on the store shelf. But under the current system (that is, global sourcing and no labels), what percentage of spices should we assume to be irradiated?
“We’ve tried to get more information from companies about that very issue,” Osterholm said. For now, though, he added: “I can’t tell you that. And I don’t know anyone who can.”
X-rays would make a convenient bogeyman for my gardening failures. But in truth, plenty of my other fruits and spices were dead on arrival, Andrew decided. Cutting open a white grapefruit, for instance, he discovered “a bunch of small, poorly formed seeds.”
For some reason, the citrus consumer doesn’t like pits. To satisfy this demand, growers breed grapefruits that are basically seedless, and raise them in orchards full of cloned trees.
The star anise seeds, meanwhile, bobbed to the surface of the bath. Andrew took this to be a bad sign. “If it floats, it has a lot of air in it,” he said. “It should be full.”
Yet you can rarely count out a seed, said Marc Hachadourian, manager of the Nolen Greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden. “Sometimes things that look dead might be alive, and vice versa,” he said.
So Andrew and I dutifully wetted our pots and trays of seed-starting mix, a clean, fluffy medium for seedlings. We sprinkled the smallest seeds — poppy, caraway, cardamom, fig and mustard — over the surface. A dusting of soil went on top.
The ginger was a rhizome, or underground stem. Laid flat on damp soil, it should sink some roots and then send up leaves. We hoped that the turmeric rhizome, with its articulated arthropod body, would cotton to the same treatment. Otherwise, this thing looked as if it might depart for Wonderland and start puffing on a hookah.
As for the sweet potato, we probably didn’t have to do a thing, Andrew said. “You could leave this on the shelf, and it would start to grow.”
For good measure, we sunk it waist-high in a mound of dirt, like Winnie in Beckett’s “Happy Days.”
Finally, we were left with the seeds from the vanilla pod, which were too minuscule to handle. No store of food or energy filled these iridescent black flecks, Andrew said. “Basically some DNA and, I guess, a growing tip.”
Orchids (vanilla is a type of orchid) will scatter millions of seeds to the wind before one of them finds the right berth to germinate.
“It’s probably more like one in a trillion,” Andrew added. “Does it really matter at that point? I suppose if it was money, you’d want a trillion.”
Three weeks later, I had not hit the vanilla lottery. And I never would, said Jonathan Silvertownauthor of “An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds” and an ecology professor at the Open University, 50 miles north of London.
“A vanilla pod is fermented to bring out its flavor,” Silvertown explained. And with “the smallest seeds on earth,” these orchids “depend on parasitizing fungi to establish themselves.”
The figs were a lost cause, too.
“Most of the figs that we buy are from asexual varieties,” Silvertown said. “They do have seeds, but they’re nonviable.”
Only a specialized breed of wasp can pollinate a fig. Last I checked, I didn’t have any fig wasps lying around the kitchen.
The wonders of market agriculture and container shipping had stocked my larders from all over the world. But “seeds from the tropics tend not to live as long,” Silvertown said. “Basically, because their ecology doesn’t require them to.” For many of these hot-blooded migrants, my cupboard was the end of the line.
The sprouting alfalfa, however, lived up to its name. This crop would come in handy if I ever bought a pony.
And the mustard seed and poppies sprouted as soft and thick as a flokati rug.
This bounty didn’t surprise Silvertown. “You will get poppy plants coming up in fields that haven’t been propagated for decades,” he said.
My dried beans — the lentils, red beans and chick peas — shot out of the ground as if they had been fired from a silo.
“Seeds with a hard seed coat, like many in the pea family, tend to be the longest living ones,” Silvertown said.
A pea is a patient thing, he writes in his book: “In 1940 when the Natural History Museum in London was bombed and the fire brigade played their hoses upon the ashes, seeds of the legume Albizia cheerfully woke up and germinated on the herbarium sheet where they had been placed in 1793.”
I’d think of this story the next time I purged the dusty jars from the spice drawer. Ultimately, it’s not the seed that carries an expiration date; it’s the cook.
Seeds to consider
Avocado is a gateway seed — a way station on the path from horticultural dabbler to gardening addict. The pit, the toothpicks, the glass of water: this is seed germination at its most intoxicating.
Marc Hachadourian became hooked on avocados in third or fourth grade. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, he said, “I planted a little army on the windowsill. It got to the point where my mother got upset. She’d say, ‘We don’t need any giant avocado trees in the house.’ When they’d hit the 8-foot ceiling, it was time for them to go.”
Once Hachadourian had a taste of seed-starting, he said, he “moved on to other, more advanced horticultural subjects.” Now, at 37, he manages the Nolen Greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden.
For the “Edible Garden” exhibition last fall, Hachadourian returned to kitchen propagation. He found particular success selecting produce from small ethnic markets. The vegetables there may not have been treated to prevent germination, Hachadourian said. “People were asking, ‘Where are we going to get a water chestnut plant?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to pay for that!’ I went down to Chinatown and bought them for $2 a pound.”
Though they are invasive in the wild, water chestnuts won’t thrive indoors without an aquarium or a fishbowl, he said. But plenty of other seeds that look appetizing in the produce aisle also look attractive in a planter.
Once you invite a papaya seed to sprout, it will make itself at home. In tropical weather and full sunlight, a papaya plant will shoot up six feet before its first birthday. Even indoors, the “large, single trunk” will grow rapidly, developing “long stalks with palmate leaves,” Hachadourian said.
“I’ve seen papayas fruit in a home,” he added. “Granted, the thing was like eight feet tall.”
A tangerine or lemon shrub might put up a fuss about fruiting indoors. But “the fragrance of the flowers is absolutely fantastic if you can coax them into bloom,” he said. This may take a few years. But the shiny leaves, when bruised, release a lovely perfume of their own.
Looking at an old bag of dried beans, it’s hard to imagine a handsome plant. Yet the pigeon pea will develop “beautiful silvery” foliage, Hachadourian said. And in the “fall to early winter, it will cover itself in bright yellow blossoms.”
For another Chinatown find, he likes the litchi — a sweet, squishy eyeball of a fruit. The “willow-like foliage” on this south China native will start reddish, then turn a deep, glossy green. But don’t get too attached to the plant unless your home has true cathedral ceilings. Though the litchi grows slowly, a mature tree may top out between 30 and 100 feet.
“If the plant gets up to size,” Hachadourian said, “you just get a new one.” In other words, time to start snacking again.