Monday, June 24, 2013

The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray - Book Review

     Each chapter of this beautifully written book is it's own story.  The story of an individual seed saver which, of course, is hopelessly intertwined with the stories of the plants they love.  Ray tells her own story as well, through the process of tracking down and acquiring so many heirloom varieties, from so many unique and interesting people.  And of course that is what separates an heirloom from any other open pollinated seed; a good story to go with it.

     As a new seed saver, I was both inspired and humbled by the tireless efforts of so many to preserve our collective cultural heritage in the genetics they steward.  I could not put this one down and ended up reading pretty much cover to cover through the accounts of gardeners who are also genetic librarians and, if you ask me, heroes as well.  Ray's easy to read style will suck you right in and is littered with seed saving tips and general gardening wisdom.

     Some of the chapters of this 203 page book really hit home, revealing the background of plants we have encountered personally, and people we have done business with.  In particular, the chapter on Glenn Drowns of Calamus Iowa was a real eye opener.  Glenn operates the Sandhill Preservation center and sells herloom seeds and poultry by mail.  We ordered our first batch of chicks from there and, after waiting patiently for two months, got a letter explaining that they were sold out and we should order earlier next season.  Boy were we upset about that, why did it take so long to send us a rejection?  We ended up ordering from a large commercial hatchery and got our birds a week later.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter about Glen;

"Perhaps the most famous folk seed saver and plant breeder of our time is Glenn Drowns of Iowa.  If he's not the most famous, he's no doubt the hardest working.  I thought I was a hard worker until I learned Glenn's schedule.  He works three full-time jobs.  One of them is teaching middle- and high-school science, including chemistry and biology, in Calamus, Iowa.  Another is running a mail-order business selling heirloom poultry and seeds, with a hundred-page catalog.  The third is keeping those varieties and breeds alive at Sand Hill Preservation Center, outside Calamus.

     I wanted to go visit Glenn, but I could not fathom using the fossil fuels to do so, and so I caught up with this busy man by phone on a Sunday, a rainy weather evening in Iowa that happened to be  chilly but clear in Georgia.  During our long and relaxed conversation Glenn explained his schedule.  He's up at four thirty every morning to tend the poultry.  A weather buff, he types in data about the day's conditions around seven o'clock, eats breakfast, and leaves for school at seven thirty.  At four o'clock in the afternoon, when he's home again, he focuses on farm chores until dinner at six thirty.  Evenings are spent filling seed orders, grading papers, and working on projects.

     You have to hear the numbers to truly understand the dedication of Glenn to the diversity of food.  He has single-handedly rescued poultry breeds from extinction, and now not only keeps alive 235 breeds but also raises poults and chicks.  Over the years he has had as many as 2000 plant varieties in his care, and even now keeps many hundreds going-including 185 sweet potatoes, 200 corns, 150-200 squash, 700 tomatoes, and so on.  The numbers are mind-boggling."

Boy did I feel like a schmuck after reading that!  Now that I understand a little more about what it means to save those seeds, a little waiting and limited capacity don't seem so bad anymore.  I should probably mention that we have been very pleased with the seed orders we have placed there.  Glenn does not take internet orders, but his catalog can be viewed online.

     I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in seed saving, or any type of gardening for that matter.  For it's information as much as it's inspiration, and to help understand why this hard work is so important to us all.

The Seed Underground can be purchased directly from Chelsea Green Publishing through the link below.  This is an affiliate link, and any purchase made within 30 minutes of clicking the link will result in a small commission toward supporting our efforts here.

The Seed Underground - $17.95
from: Chelsea Green Publishing


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