It was late September and I was organizing seeds before my son, Clay, arrived to help put in the winter garden. The seeds that I held in my palm could easily be mistaken for the droppings of a very small mouse. They appeared to lack any provenance or agency—the sort of specks you sweep and blot away without a thought. Yet I knew from experience that from these nondescript jots would spring large, leafy clumps of Amish Red Deer Tongue lettuce, as luscious to the eye as they are to the tongue.
But being heirloom seeds, they’re hard to find. Which is why, a few weeks earlier on a warm August morning, I’d plopped myself down in the backyard beside an old grocery sack of dry Deer Tongue stems to try to salvage seeds from last year’s garden.
Lettuce seeds are hard to judge. From the minute the plants bolt in the spring, I try to keep an eye on their whirly stalks. But overnight they divide and multiply. Then they have to dry—but not so long that they burst—before I cut the tops off the stalks and stash them in a grocery sack. My intention is always to winnow the seeds within a week. But it’s a time-consuming task and easy to put off. So when I finally get to it at the end of August, many seeds have been pulverized by bugs and weather: deferred seed-saving can mean no seed-saving at all.
Such was the fate of last spring’s Prize Head Lettuce. But for some lucky reason the tufted Deer Tongue pods survived. So for several hours that summer day, I rolled them gently between my thumb and index finger, releasing streams of teeny black beads into a small glass jar.
I walked inside the garden-to-be, which lay open and still in the late afternoon light. We’d already dug in the compost, mulched, and repaired irrigation lines. On a low wall to the east of the garden were the seeds we intended to plant: store-bought packets of White Daikon, Lake Valley beets, Rainbow chard, Russian kale, Nantes carrots, Red Sails lettuce, Bright Lights radishes. Beside these were my own jars of arugula, snow pea, cilantro, and Deer Tongue seeds.
Small seeds are nerve-racking. I feel more comfortable with large ones. Like the lima beans we used to plant in school. Hefty enough that when they sprouted and split apart you could actually see how they nourished themselves, their translucent parts feeling for the edges of the Dixie cup. Contrast that to a Deer Tongue seed—like a sliver of dirt under your nail—which appears to have nothing inside it. How on earth could such an unsubstantial thing bring forth such beautiful salads of long, pointy greens?
As soon as my son arrived, we began to rake and even the garden rows, our conversation full of expectation. But I kept wondering about those tiny seeds: Would they come up this year? Would anything come up?
“Should we plant all the radishes together?” Clay asked.
“Yes,” I told him. Though I didn’t know for sure. I do what I do in the garden because it worked the last time, not because I understand. It’s when things don’t work that I’m forced to learn something new. As my grandfather used to say: “Farmers are the biggest gamblers in the world.” I hate gambling. So gardening becomes a deeper practice for me.
A couple of thrashers whistled to each other from the neighbor’s mesquite, no doubt discussing how delicious the seedlings would be by the middle of next week. The sun began to set. I reached down and squeezed the soil. It was friable and dark and smelled like sweet tobacco. I ran a furrow down the western-most row in the garden. Then I unsnapped the lid on the Deer Tongue seeds, knelt down, and carefully sprinkled them out. Gently I pressed them into the earth, hoping it wasn’t too deep or too shallow. “Don’t do too many, Mom,” Clay said.
As usual, I poured out extra. Just in case.
I was shaking out a second row of carrots when Clay had to hurry off to meet a friend. By the time I finished, I couldn’t see where the seeds were dropping. I sprayed the planted rows with a hose, and stood for a moment to the side of the garden, hoping that the universe would help. Then I knocked the dirt from my soles and headed up to the unlit house. A thousand things could always go wrong, but my body was too tired to care. By the time I turned on the kitchen light, the seeds we had planted were already starting to move in the dark. ✜
Molly McKasson is an actress, teacher, and freelance writer, currently working on a collection of essays called The Small Sweet Self. This winter’s garden will be her 35th.