My Seedings: Chard in upper left, basil in lower left, leeks in lower right and plum tomatoes in upper right

In an earlier blog, I wrote about garden catalogues. I’d like to follow up today by writing about growing plants from seeds.

I haven’t usually planted seeds in the house in early spring. While I was still working, I didn’t really have time to tend them properly and the times I did plant seeds they typically didn’t thrive for lack of attention. It was easier just to buy seedlings at the nursery. Now that I am retired, however, I have more time to tend to plants indoors and for several years now I have grown plants from seed in the house. So, about ten days ago I planted some swiss chard, basil, leeks and plum tomatoes seeds tray in a sunny spot in our kitchen. It is a great pleasure to watch the little seedling poke their heads out of the soil and to check their progress every morning.

It is always a wonder of nature to see those little seedlings and to think how a large, lush plant can develop from such a small seed. Jesus himself, of course, reflected on this wonder in the parable of the mustard seed as told by both Matthew (13:31–32) and Mark (4:30–32), the kingdom of God is compared to the little mustard seed which grows into one of the largest plants in the garden.

Anne and I also have fond memories of Mr. Kempske, who ran a small familly farm just north of Baltimore, near Loch Raven Resevoir in Howard Co., Maryland (I think the town was called Baldwin). One of our great pleasures as graduate students was to drive out to the Kempske farm to buy some fresh produce. One spring we remember Mr. Kempske coming up to us with a bunch of freshly-harvested spinach in his arms and telling us in joyful wonder how these luscious plants had grown from the tiniest seeds. Mr. Kempske’s farm has long disappeared into suburban sprawl, I am sure, but I still think of Mr. Kempske as I watch my seedlings grow and think ahead to my summer garden.

The seeds I planted also each have stories. The swiss chard is rainbow chard. We like it because the leaf stalks are rainbow colored — bright reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I used to plant just regular, green chard, but one year we were visiting my sister MaryBeth in Durham, North Carolina, where we saw the rainbow chard planted as accent plants in flower pots along with flowers. The plants were so pretty that I decided to grow them myself. It is often difficult to find seedlings for that kind of chard for sale in nurseries, so growing them from seed makes sense.

I am also growing some “Perpetual Spinach” chard from seed about which my college frirend, Joel Gagnon, a master gardener, wrote enthusiastically in this year’s Christmas letter. Joel claims that this chard tastes remarkably like spinach but, unlike spinach, is bolt resistant and lasts through the summer. He grew it in upstate New York. The climate here in western Illinois may be a bit different. We shall see. At least they are sprouting well.

We always grow a lot of basil for pesto. In the past I have purchased seedlings, but that can get to be pricey. Most of the time basil is sold as an herb in a single pot for several dollars. If I were lucky, I could sometimes find it sold in three or four packs for a better price, but last year I grew it very successfully from seed and am doing so again this year. My fondest memory of basil is associated with my Italain cousin Enzo (Vincenzo Mauri), who had a small house and plot in Castel Abbate in Salerno. Among other things he grew basil and liked to pick a spring, take a deep sniff and then put it behind his ear.

Growing leeks from seed are an experiment for me. Anne and I never used to eat leeks but several years ago our neighbor Clark gave me a few leftover leek shoots which thrived. It turned out that we liked the taste and I decided to plant more the next year. Leek plants are also difficult to find in western Illinois. That year I found some at a nursery up in Rock Island but the next year I was visiting my son Richard in the Twin Cities and found some very nice leek plants for sale in a nursery near his apartment. For several years I made a point of time a visit to Richard when I could buy some leeks, but that wasn’t really practical. So last year, in the midst of the pandemic, I ordered leeks on line. That worked out well, but and I ordered more plants for this year, but I also decided to try some seeds. If they work out, that is what I will do again next year. So far the little leeks seem happy.

And then there are some plum tomato seedlings coming up. Again, I’ve always bought plants rather than grow tomatoes from seeds, partly because I like to plant one or two each of a wide variety of tomatoes. It actually cost more to buy a packet of tomato seeds than it costs for a three- or four-pack of plants. But plum tomatoes are different. I like to plant 8–10 plants of plums because I can a lot of sauce every year. So growing plum tomatoes from seeds is not really a bad idea, and these seeds are special. My brother Eddie sent them to me from New Jersey. He got these seeds many years ago from an old Italian-American whose father had brought the original seeds from Italy more than a century ago. Eddie used to have a large garden but now he lives in a high-rise on the Boardwalk and only has room for one or two plants on his balcony, so he wanted me to keep this special strain of tomatoes going. Again the seedlings seem happy so far and I am looking forward to tasting the fruit they bear.

I will probaby also plant a few flower seeds indoors. In the fall of 2018 I saw some very tall (2–3 ft.) marigold plants with very large (5–6 in.) blooms in a nursery near my sister Toni’s house in central New Jersey. I’d never seen such tall marigolds before. They were African marigolds. Despite the name, these plants are actually native to Mexico and were grown by the Aztecs. Modern Mexicans place them on altars on the Day of the Dead, which was why that nursery in NJ was growing them.I was so impressed with them that I bought seed on line and planted some last spring. (I also shared some with my sisters Toni in NJ and MaryBeth in NC). The plants didn’t grow quite as tall in my garden last year as they did in NJ, but I still have some seeds and plan to give them another chance this year.

Finally, I will plant some four o-clock seeds. There were always four o-clock plants growing in my parents’ and grandparents’ little postage-stamp gardens in Hoboken when I was growing up and they always reseeded themselves. I have occasionally planted them but they rarely reseeded for me and it is near impossible to find plants for sale in nurseries. This winter I was reading about four o-clocks and it turns out that the plant actually produces a tuber which can be dug up and replanted in the spring. That sounds more doable for me, so my plan is to start some plants from seed this year and start saving the tubers. I don’t know why folks don’t plant four o-clocks much any more. The flowers, which open up in the evening (hence the name), are very pretty 1-in blossomes in variegated colors. My wife Anne tells me that they also have a nice scent (which I can’t smell). So you might give four o-clocks a chance in your garden, too.

Finally, a bit more about “tiny seeds,” the title of this blog. It was also the name of the pre-school religious education program which my children attended at Immaculate Conception Church in Monmouth . A great name for such a school, especially when you think about that parable of the mustard seed.

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.