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Garden in the City: An Urban Gardener Confronts Her Fear of the 'S'-Word

 Urban gardening from scratch, using seeds.
Hortus in Urbe: Seeds
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LINCOLN SQUARE — Let's talk about the "s"-word.


Experienced gardeners love seeds.

They swap them, covet them and collect them. There's an entire organization — the Seed Savers Exchange — devoted to preserving and sharing heirloom seeds the way a family might pass down an antique piece of jewelry or furniture brought over from the old country by somebody's great-great-great-great-great grandmother.

I picture these folks flipping through seed inventories and circling items for their wish lists like my 7-year-old niece devouring the latest American Girl catalog.

But for a novice such as myself, seeds are a scary proposition.

You know what happens when you bury a seed in the ground? Nothing. And then something. Or maybe not. What's going on under the soil, out of sight? You'll never know.

A couple of weekends ago, I visited the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, which was putting a brave face on its annual plant sale despite having had a catastrophic growing season.

"It's been the most challenging and difficult time of my life," Kirsten Akre, the Chicago Park District floriculturalist who manages the greenhouse, told me.

This is a person who grows plants for a living, and even she was stymied by the process.

So I crossed seeds off my to-do list, same as I leave it to the pros to build my car engine and wire my home for electricity.

But then I couldn't find peas, beans or carrots anywhere.

As I scanned the shelves of plants at Matty K's — our third garden center of the day — my eyes flitted over the usual suspects of cucumber, eggplant and squash. I spied Laura Kollar (aka, Mrs. Matty K) and asked her: "Does anyone have peas or beans? Or are they already gone?"

They weren't gone, Laura informed me — they never existed.

It seems peas and beans are the seed world's equivalent of boiling water. They're essentially idiot-proof. They germinate so quickly and are so easy to grow, Laura told me, that most nurseries leave them to the amateurs.

If I wanted peas and beans, I was going to have to grow them from scratch.

I approached the store's seed racks reluctantly, where I was surprised to find packets from Seed Savers for sale. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. I had pictured Seed Savers as a more secretive, Opus Dei-type group, dispensing their treasures to a few chosen acolytes, not someone like me who wouldn't know a Federle tomato from a Cherokee Purple.

I picked out two varieties of beans, one traditional green and one purple with yellow streaks, and two kinds of peas, including what I'm hoping are snow peas. I tossed in a packet of carrots for good measure, even though Laura had warned me they were a crapshoot. I was going all in.

As I stood in the checkout line, the woman ahead of me inspected my purchase and volunteered, "I'm afraid of seeds."

I was already starting to feel superior.

At the garden, I opened up my packets and discovered that seeds for peas looked like peas. (My 5-year-old self wants to know why, if you swallow a pea seed, you don't grow peas in your stomach.) Beans looked like dried pinto beans. Carrots looked like grass.

I placed them in the ground, two to three inches apart just like the instructions said, covered them with soil, doused them with water and then walked away.

Four days later, nothing.

What I said to my husband Dave: "That's OK. The packages said eight to 12 days to germinate."

What I thought to myself: "*@#*!"

Ten days later, we had visible sprouts of peas, beans and carrots.

Boo-yah. I grew stuff from seeds. If I were given to excessive displays of exuberance, I would have thumped my chest or done a cartwheel. I was crazy proud of myself, like I'd not only built a car engine but invented internal combustion.

"Well, of course it worked," Dave said. "You know kindergartners grow these things in styrofoam cups."

Dude, it's all about the baby steps.