Seeds 1430

Pea seedlings grow inside a plastic tray at Katie Tolson’s home.

The Hastings Pollinator Pathway Project is sponsoring its second seed swap at the Hastings Farmers’ Market next Saturday, April 17. The swap is a reprise of a successful event in February, where the seeds of 38 different plants, both edible and decorative, were given away. 

The seeds were donated in advance of the event, sorted by Pollinator Pathway Committee member Katie Tolson, placed in paper packets, and labeled with scannable QR codes to access growing information about the seeds. Members of the Pollinator Pathway Committee will be at the market to answer questions. The seeds will be free to all.

In an April 6 interview, Tolson spoke with enthusiasm about learning to grow from seed. The director of trusts and estates at the Bonham’s auction house in Manhattan, Tolson moved to Hastings with her husband, Dan, and their two daughters four years ago. She started growing from seed when they bought their home, which had space for a garden and to let some plants “go to seed,” rather than harvesting their produce. The family shares the garden with four hens — Pepper, Ophelia, Venice, and Queen Boudicea — who supply companionship and fresh eggs.

“I think I’ve probably been a gardener most of my life,” she said. “I grew up with a mother who was a gardener and a grandmother who was a gardener.” But growing from seed was a skill she had never learned, because her mother and grandmother planted seedlings from a plant nursery. “I didn’t have a teacher,” she said. “I literally just read different books, the backs of seed packets, trying to figure out what they need... and experimenting.”

Not all those experiments worked. “You will always kill things, and that’s OK,” she said. “Even the best gardeners — you’ll lose a lot of plants but just keep trying and you’ll find the plant that you really dig. Be patient with yourself.” 

On April 6, Tolson was in the process of coaxing seeds to grow by various methods. “My first couple of years, I started seeds in February and March on my windowsill,” she said. “Since then, I have gotten lamps, LED setups, heat mats, so you get a quicker germination. Then I have two little greenhouses outside.” 

Tolson advised going slowly when transplanting seedlings that have been started indoors: “You let them get to a good size before you put them in. Put them in a little bigger container till you put them out, so they get a little more structure. I don’t put anything out here in the Rivertowns until the first of May, except hardy plants like spinach and carrots. But squash and tomatoes will perish if put out when it’s cold.”

“Hardening off” indoor-grown seedlings is a key step. “If you’ve had them indoors for weeks growing them from seed, you can’t just put them in the ground. The way you do hardening-off, you take your little seedlings and put them somewhere warm like your patio table for an hour. You need to slowly give them a couple of hours outside every day, then a whole day, then for a night. They will shock if you put them straight outside and make them go through that temperature change.”

At the seed-saving end of the process, in many cases it’s just a matter of leaving plants to go to seed after they flower, instead of cutting them down every autumn. “The easiest seeds to save are the natives: a menarda, a hyssop,” she said. “Let’s say you don’t cut them. You leave the heads on them, and you let them dry. In October or November, you brush your hand over [the seed heads] and collect the seeds.” This technique works well for flower heads, herbs, and different kinds of vegetables. “Thyme has these beautiful flowers that bees love,” she noted. “Anything like oregano, thyme, all these perennial herbs.”

She recommends leaving some of those seed heads intact for the birds, and letting the plants overwinter with a good blanket of straw and leaves over their beds.

Tolson grows a large variety of edibles and flowers; her 2020 garden held green beans, heirloom tomatoes, flowers grown both for their pleasing blooms and for brewing tea, and summer squash, onions, garlic, and strawberries. She even harvests her weeds. “I really enjoy the early weeds,” she said. “I make dandelion tea.”

The deadline for seed donations was April 3 so that seeds could be packaged for the April 17 farmers’ market. Anyone who still has some seeds to donate can bring them to the market for distribution at a later date. Tolson said there will be a large selection on April 17, including herbs, native plants, and flowers.

The committee may have one additional seed swap in June. Since well-packaged seeds can last for a year or two, any leftovers will form the basis of a revived “seed library” at the Hastings Public Library once pandemic restrictions are lifted. The library dedicated the Louise and Fred Hubbard Heirloom Seed Collection, a lending library for heirloom seeds, in 2016, on the occasion of resident Louise Hubbard’s 100th birthday. Her husband, Fred, served as Hastings’ official Village Naturalist from 2006 until his death in 2008 at the age of 81. Long before that, he was its unofficial naturalist, writing about Hastings’ natural environment in three reference volumes on the village’s birds, flora, and outdoor attractions.

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