Native Son – December, 2011

Steven checks out the newest discoveries in old and heirloom seeds.

The Memory of Seeds

The youngest member in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company is the adorable Sasha Gettle.

This rare and wonderful day off work finds me nose deep in my new Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, ohhing and ahhing over dragon’s egg cucumbers, blue shamrock squash, tigger melons, hedgehog gourds, pink icicle tomatoes, moon and stars watermelons, red noodle beans, and hundreds of other amazing things I’ll never grow … or maybe I will. Seeds are dreams waiting to come alive … or maybe it’s the other way around.
Being a horticulturist, I’ve planted more seeds than most folks — which is not to brag, since this also means I’ve experienced more foliar failures, agricultural agonies, and horticultural humiliation than most people. On the flip side, it also means that I’ve fathered some fantastic fruits, nurtured some gnarly nuts, and amassed some amazing adventures along the way. All in all, the good has outweighed the bad, or at least it does in my memory.

My first garden was a backyard experiment. I was 19, had my own rent house, and naively bought three packets of seeds: crookneck squash, cucumber, and watermelon. To plant them according to the instructions, I needed a bigger back yard, but I made do by plowing up every bit of soil, and yes, I planted every seed I had. (Thank heaven the landlord didn’t come by.) No paths, no mulch, no irrigation — just bare soil formed into dozens of little mounds, like a herd of deranged moles lived there. I guess it rained that summer, because I don’t remember watering that much. What I do remember is bringing paper grocery sacks FULL of squash and cucumbers up to work, and everyone looking at me with gratefulness and admiration. That was the first week. By the third week, I was met with rolling eyes and groans. How was I to know that a single crookneck squash plant would feed a family of six? And I had about 20 mounds of double vines! It all came to a quick end when the raccoons discovered my garden, and I never saw a single watermelon. I just mowed it all flat after the first frost, and it didn’t look too much different than it did before I started, since the concept of weed control had not yet entered my thought processes. All in all … a smashing success! At least it was in my mind, since the landlord was none the wiser.

Soon enough, I discovered seed catalogs, chock full of the latest hybrids … each one a guaranteed winner! I planted some amazing things … tomatoes, petunias, marigolds, delphiniums … and they all came right up! These guaranteed winners were the best things ever, unless, I found out, you live in Texas. Everything was burned to a crisp by May 15, except for the marigolds, which were covered in “teeny spider webs,” which were nowhere to be found in that swanky catalog photo. To tell ya the truth, I was pretty chapped. I was venting off a little steam one day to the Burford sisters (86 and 88 years old) over on Waits Avenue by TCU, and they both smiled sweetly and said, “You have to love your garden.” What? Geez, Louise, whaddya talkin’ about? You put seeds in the ground; you get plants. They both giggled. “Well … that’s what we do.”

This heirloom zinnia blossom measured a full 5 inches across.

That was about 33 years ago. The time in between has been a blur of sweat, blood, cuts, bruises, backaches, headaches, schoolwork, homework, busted trucks, fixed trucks, good times, hard times, lean times, fat times, cheap beer, good beer, champagne, lousy gardens, fantastic gardens, mean people, sweet people, rich people, poor people, hurt people, helping people, feasts, famines, plane trips, road trips, snail mail, e-mail, typewriters, laptops, and all the rest. Canada to Costa Rica, Hawaii to Denmark, and I still have not heard better horticultural advice … ”You’ve got to love your garden.”

Now I know what they meant … just spend time with your garden, and get to know it. Plan, plant, and culture intelligently, for sure, but take a risk now and again just to broaden the experience. You will either savor your serendipity or learn from the lead balloon. Spend time with your garden (or dog or horse or child) and you will know it intuitively. You will grow together, entwining your hearts, your histories, and your memories.

Left photo: A praying mantis stakes out territory atop an heirloom zinnia. Top right photo: Blue morning glories and purple hyacinth bean blossoms celebrate their climb together. Bottom right photo: The huge leaves of purple castor bean create a bold, tropical look.

So here I am, thumbing through this seed catalog full of the most amazing, intriguing, non-GMO fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and I can’t help but get a little excited about the possibilities. Five years ago, the heirloom zinnias brought some ladies to tears. Four years ago, it was the wall of blue morning glories that stopped people in their tracks. Three years ago, the giant castor beans were the hit. Two years ago, it was those bright red, dangling, extra-long dancer snake melons that blew everyone’s mind, and the color of the Mexican sunflowers was so rich I could almost taste it. Last year, it was the gigantic, satin-white, pleated-petal moonflower that made me swoon.

Top left photo: Strange and beautiful, extra-long dancer snake melons dangle from a 12-foot pergola. Bottom left photo: Rich color is the hallmark of Mexican sunflower. Right photo: Large, yet delicate, blossoms adorn the moonflower vine.

Cleaning Texas mountain laurel seeds on the tailgate.

Of course, I’ve also collected seeds on my road trips around the state, usually from superb specimens of roadside native plants I’ve encountered. I’ve got Texas mountain laurel seeds from Austin, Mexican buckeye from south of Adamsville, partridge pea from up near McKinney, old plainsman from Madisonville, live oak from Waco, gayfeather from Mineral Wells, and a great smattering of others. It’s a gourmet collection that I’ve grown proud to possess … until I started this article. Isn’t it time to release the dreams? There they sit, earth’s truest treasures, filling jars and envelopes and old spice bottles, just waiting for the chance to live and breathe and bring joy to the world. I glance into the mirror and confirm the very real fact that I’m not getting any younger. Carpe diem!  Carpe semilla!  Carpe sueño! … or something like that.

What memory will you plant this year?

“Patience is the most genuine expression of love.” — Joseph Grenny

About the author: Steven Chamblee is the chief horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and a regular contributor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS magazine and e-gardens newsletter. Steven adds these notes:

We’re making a mess at Chandor Gardens! Our winter projects are particularly messy this year, so we are closing the garden from January 1 to January 17 to keep everyone safe and happy.  Come see our improvements after we’ve swept up a bit. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 for more information. You can always go to for a picture tour and details.

I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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