Saturday, December 01, 2007


In many climates, the sowing, growing, and harvesting are done for the year. What does the avid gardener do when he or she can no longer putter outside, pull weeds, check plants for bugs, and spend countless hours just looking at his or her garden? I'm lucky—I can do this all year long—but I’ve often wondered about those who don’t live in such a mild climate. How do gardeners get through the early period of winter, before the seed catalogs come, before it’s time to plot out next year’s garden?

I’ve found the answer: they exchange seeds.


Imagine this: A gardener, let’s call her Helen, has transitioned her veggie plot into hibernation mode. She’s cleaned out the remains of the vines and bushes, planted cover crops if she can, and seen the sparkly crystals of frost glittering on the surface of her beds. A Saturday morning rolls around, and she—usually one to pop out of bed and throw on her ripped garden jeans to head out to be with her plot—shuffles in her slippers to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, then plops in front of the computer.

Helen turns on the computer, waiting impatiently through the startup screens, sipping the coffee and pulling her robe tighter against the cold of the morning house. When the computer wakes up, she begins clicking through her bookmarked forums, signing in as (What screen name shall we give her? Hmm. I’ve got it.) lnched1000ships_69.

In this virtual world, lnched1000ships_69 is gardening. She’s tending to her crops for next year, culling her excesses, and adding diversity where needed. Her latest post, “HAVE: heirloom tomato seeds, many varieties,” has drawn responses from other gardeners all over the country, the most thrilling from veggie_daddy who has offered her Fordhook Gem melon and Kentucky Greasy Bean seeds for her Reisenstraube and Omar’s Lebanese tomato seeds. Oh, she has been wanting to try growing Kentucky Greasy Beans for years! Giddy with the taste of the legendary bean, she emails veggie_daddy offline, tells him she’s in for the deal and gives him her address.

When she heads back to the forum, a new posting leads the list: HAVE: Seminole squash seeds available by SASBE. She learned early on, when she first got in the seed trading game, that SASBE meant “self-addressed stamped bubbled envelope” and a deal that was too good to pass up, free seeds.

In ten minutes, she’s already added to next year’s garden and shared her wealth with others. She can spend hours on seed exchange forums. It may be an addiction, but at least it is passing the time until she can get her hands in the dirt again.


Now, clearly, Helen is not me, for I could never, ever pull off a screen name like lnched1000ships_69. But, I’ve gotten in the game too. This summer, ECG collected plastic snap-close boxes at his lab for me to keep seeds in (I place the boxes in a larger box and keep them in a cool, dark closet), and I’ve been trading what little I have and taking advantage of those glorious SASBE offers. Seed trading is not only a fun way to connect with people all over and to build up our gardens, but it helps us keep even the rarest of heirlooms alive. In a recent exchange, I received seeds for a small, yellow-fleshed watermelon that is an American Indian heirloom I’ve never heard of. These were seeds that the sender included as a “Christmas gift;” they were an extra I hadn’t even exchanged for. And now, they’ll grow in another garden, and this little melon will stay alive in the midst of the ever-narrowing genepool of industrial agriculture.

To see seed exchange forums, and perhaps even participate, check out these sites:

Seed Exchange--GardenWeb (US)

Seed Exchange--GardenWeb (UK and Europe)

Seed Exchange--GardenWeb (Australia)

New Zealand Garden Swap

In the spirit of passing along seeds, I’ll pass along one of my favorite late fall, early winter recipes that you don’t even need to send a SASBE to receive.

Persimmon Bread

I’ve modified this recipe a bit from the James Beard classic, found in his little beauty, Beard on Bread, to fit the needs of our household. This time of year, when the persimmons are in abundance around here, I cook with them a lot. This is one of my favorite means of using the fruit. I can eat this bread all the time, with butter or cream cheese, or even plain, but ECG and I both agree that the best way to eat this is spread with a soft, salty, creamy blue cheese. Persimmon bread with blue cheese and a good cup of hot coffee may just be the perfect breakfast on a cold morning.

You will need:
3 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 ¾ cups sugar
3 tablespoons flaxmeal
1 cup melted butter
4 eggs, lightly beaten
¼-⅔ cup Cognac (I like a lot, ECG likes a little)
2 cups persimmon purée (the pulp of about 4 medium, very ripe persimmons—not necessary to peel)
1 ½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup raisins

3 loaf pans, greased and floured

To make the bread:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, soda, ginger, sugar, and flax) together in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and add the persimmon purée and the rest of the ingredients. Mix the dough until all ingredients are thoroughly combined, and pour the mixture into the loaf pans, so that each pan has approximately the same amount of batter. Bake for 1 hour, or until the bread bounced back when gently depressed by a finger in the center of the loaf. Cool the loaves in the molds and turn out on a rack.

(Oh, and if you're looking for something fascinating to watch while you're munching on persimmon bread or putting your seed list together, check out Mustard Plaster's recap of her garden here. It's definitely worth a visit.)


The Passionate Palate said...

Sorry I've been away from commenting for a while. I come back to find your winter garden is looking gorgeous! And what diligent work collecting all those seeds. Trading them is an amazing system...and why wouldn't you dare to use that screen name? It would be living succulently!

Anonymous said...

I learn about more interesting stuff on your Web site, Christina. The gardening underworld revealed!

Kristan :)

Lucy said...

Have bookmarked Garden Web.

An old friend used to work in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and was passionate about seed exchanging. I was too young to be interested, but boy, do I care deeply 12 years later.

Actually, I think you should adopt 'Helen's' screen name!

Can't wait to see how your Native melons grow (that sounds rude. apologies...).

Susan in Italy said...

I've always wondered about persimmon pudding and persimmon pie but this is new to me. What flavor does the persimmon impart to the bread?

Molly said...

Hi - I live in a zone 7 US climate where we have had a couple of hard freezes already. I keep myself sane by caring for plants that I brought in from the cold.
Also, I took cuttings of half a dozen plants I love and am trying to propagate them.
In addition, I started mustard and lettuce seeds on a heat mat and under lights.
Some of us just can't stop no matter what the weather.

Wendy said...

I expected to be missing my garden during the winter months but it's so damned dark and cold that I'm really not that bothered about not being in contact with my dirt!
Admire your year round diligence, my friend. :)

Christina said...

Hi Passionate Palate: Thank you for the compliments! Seed collection may be work, but it is even more fun, but then again, I'm a straight-out garden geek.

Kristan: Good to hear from you, my friend. I hope you find the "interesting stuff" entertaining--your blog almost always makes me laugh, so I hope I can do the same for you.

Lucy: No apologies necessary--I'm always one for a boob joke. I'm very curious about those melons too. As much as I love growing things this season, I'm already looking forward to my summer garden. Argh! There's just so much to dream about! Are you still in touch with the old friend at the Royal Botanical Gardens? What a great resource.

Susan in Italy: I'm a big fan of baking with persimmons. I make cookies with them, puddings with them, and of course this bread. Persimmons impart a date-like quality to the goods--rich, sweet, moist and a perfect compliment to spices. They bake up a very rich brown color. I plan to post my persimmon pudding recipe and attempt a persimmon pie as well a little later in the winter. I highly recommend cooking with them.

Martha: I hear ya. I'm impressed by your diligence. Once upon a time, I lived in Minnesota, and I know how tough gardening with real winters can be.

Wendy: It's easy to be into the garden when the weather still hits 70-odd degrees Fahrenheit in the warmest part of the days. The dark part though--I hear you on that. I hate the lack of light in the winter--it makes me want to sleep until spring rolls around again.

Rowena said...

What a wonderful post! I've already clicked on the link for Europe exchange. Way to go Christina! All of sudden I'm feeling in the days when I used to trade marbles and Barbie outfits before moving on to uhm, recipes. ;-)

winedeb said...

We are so lucky to have a growing season all year long. I have heard about the seed exchanges while at the farmers market this summer. I would try it if I was able to plant in the ground.
I am in Ohio right now for a couple of weeks prior to Christmas and the rosemary I planted this summer is now a very nice sized small bush. But this morning we had 4 inches of snow. Have not went out to check on it yet, I am wondering if there is any way it will survive??? I miss my beans in Key West! But have a good friend tending them! Looking forward to seeing more of your garden soon!

Becca said...

Thank you for your kind words regarding my blog. I enjoy reading yours as well. Food blogs have become my bad habit here in France where I am desperately missing my kitchen, which is patiently waiting for me in boxes somewhere in Oregon. I am rather proud to say I've mastered the art of steamed quick breads on a hot plate though! It's nice to have the gardener's perspective, an often-overlooked joy of cooking I think; to grow your own. My poor dying basil plants in the window are the best I can do right now, but the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings here is just about close enough. :)

All the best!

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

Christina, what a glorious post! Curiously, as much as I love food, I've never been particularly bitten by the gardening bug. When we've had a garden, it has been Marion's province. I have to admit, though, on the rare occasions I've watered or weeded for her--or just harvested some basil or rosemary for that night's dinner--the earthy smells have threatened to suck me into that world. So do your words here.

One Food Guy said...

Oh how I miss my garden. When I moved to into my house two years ago, I thought I'd have a great plot to plant my seeds. But no, my neighbor's trees block a good half of the daily sunlight from the sunny side of my house.

I hope you don't mind if I live vicariously through yours!

Anonymous said...

Seed exchanging is a wonderful idea! Happy Holidays to you and yours, Christina!

Christina said...

Rowena: I'm so excited for you too! I can't wait to hear what you get in your trades.

Winedeb: Imagine how fun it will be to go home and see how much your beans have grown. Just thinking about it makes me happy for you.

Becca: Aren't farmers' markets wonderful? All of my produce comes from either the local farmers' market or from my little plot. Doing this forces me to eat seasonally and to eat well. I can't get a bad meal out of local produce. I'm glad you've got a great market near you, and although you may not have a kitchen or garden handy, you must be experiencing all kinds of other culinary wonders!

Terry B: Watch out--it's addictive! It starts with picking rosemary and before you know it, you'll be waiting with bated breat for the next Fedco catalog. Thank you so much for your very kind compliments.

One Food Guy: I don't mind at all you living vicariously through my garden at all. However, although I do have a garden, it isn't in my yard because I don't have a yard. I live in a condo. I was dying to get my hands back in the dirt so I moped around long enough for my friends who live in a duplex to offer me their backyard. I guess you could call it a very small community garden. If you're missing the dirt, try sniffing around for someone you know who isn't using his space. You might be surprised just where you can find a plot.

Maryann: Thank you! I hope you have a wonderful holiday as well.

Susan said...

Can't stop staring at that stamped-up envelope; it reminds me of the "Griffin and Sabine" books. Really first rate. And thanks for something moist and sweet to do with persimmons. They are all over the markets, but I always walk on by.

Christina said...

Hi Susan: I had completely forgotten about the Griffin and Sabine books until you mentioned them. Thanks for reminding me how much fun they were. Since you're a world-class experimenter, I think you'd really enjoy playing with persimmons.

Have a happy weekend!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little behind on my blog reading, so I just came across this. What a great post!

You should think about a membership in the Seed Savers Exchange ($35/yr). You don't need to offer seeds in order to get most seeds from other members (but it's always nice if you do). It is a little more expensive then commercial seeds (you have to pay for the membership AND the seeds), but it's worth it. Membership is on a calendar year basis, so now is the right time of year to join.

The seed list last year had 12,920 unique varieties, probably 10x more than any other one source of seeds and plants.

It's always nice to support them by buying seeds from their website, but membership is very different and gives you access to the plant collections of their members.

If you want to read more about the SSE, I've made some posts about them, just search my blog.