This time of year is all about anticipation. As we shop and wrap, we’re building up to a single magic moment when all will be revealed. We’re re-creating the delightful agony we remember from childhood, when we waited day after day for that special moment when we could find out if our presents lived up to our imaginings.
Seeds are little gift packages that come all wrapped up and ready to give garden joy when the time is right. In every seed, the tiny embryo of a plant is packaged along with a supply of protein-rich food to give it a good start. The seed hull is like gift paper, protecting the important parts until the moment comes for the seed to begin growing. A plant embryo won’t break through the seed coat and push a green sprout toward the sun until conditions are just right—the right amount of daylight, the right amount of warmth and the right amount of moisture.
Plants have more patience than gardeners. Many of us just can’t wait, especially in areas like Chicago with shorter growing seasons than many of the plants we want to grow. So we try to manipulate those little gifts into opening early. We use artificial lights to trick seeds into thinking the days are longer than they really are. We grow them in heated greenhouses so their soil is warm when the soil outside is still frozen.
Like children who beg and whine to be allowed to open just one gift, we want to break the suspense and make the magic moment happen early. Like the five-year-old, we have to learn to restrain ourselves to avoid ruining the celebration. Even with our lovely conservatories and all our knowledge and art, opening the gift of seeds too early will only lead to disappointment.
Seeds will keep for a while if they are carefully cared for. To keep them dormant, it’s critical to keep them in the dark, which is why they are sold in opaque paper packets. They need to be dry and cool. Some gardeners keep them in the freezer (the refrigerator is riskier because it’s moist). Gardeners with cool basements have a good place to store them. I keep mine in plastic shoe boxes with loose-fitting lids that don’t trap moisture.
Like most longtime gardeners, I have quite an accumulation of these little gift packages. At the end of every growing season I have half-packets left over, so I save them for next year. I always find a few packets I never got around to sowing at all. Even though I know that the older seeds get the fewer will sprout, it’s hard to give up on them and the promise they give.
The good thing about this is that I can already start planning. Unlike the child who isn’t sure what the magic moment will bring, I know what’s in my presents. I can start placing plants in the garden in my mind while the seeds themselves wait, tauntingly, waiting to be unwrapped.