Episode 238. Seeds! The Original Circular Economy.

This is The ChangeUnderground for the week ending 16th of November 2020.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Seeds are very much on my mind at present. If you’re in the Northern hemisphere, you’re collecting or have collected seeds and in the Southern hemisphere, you’re planting or you already have.

I’ve spent the day modifying a chain with cups on it from my garlic planter to ensure the cups will take the sweet corn seeds. The bigger cups on a different chain will pick the garlic cloves from the hopper next autumn. The seeds are ready, the epoxy is drying and rain is due in a couple of days. Hopefully everything will align. We are the world’s most optimistic people, we who plant seeds.

There is much more to this than just seed in / food out. I’m a bit different, I get excited when a chook goes broody, so planting seeds is the great miracle of life on this planet every time I sow. But, there is something especially magical about maize seeds. They’ve always fascinated me. The life cycle and growth habits are so different from everything else I plant. It is a fascination from childhood.

Those first leaves pushing through the mulch cause my heart to beat a little more quickly. The tassels and the silks, where I can “see” to a point the act of pollination. I shake the storks, watch the pollen spread and I feel the world is as it should be. 

Unwrapping, too early every year, the first ear of corn to see if it’s ready is one of life’s little joys. The same excitement I feel when lifting the straw around the potatoes to discover the harvest for the year. All these good things, hidden from view but giving clues as the wheel of the year turns.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the seed savers, the variety makers, and the seed hunters. A huge variety of seeds disappeared from the planet in the twentieth century as the wonders of hybridisation brought miracle new varieties. These did stave off starvation, in some places, sometimes. The loss though is almost incalculable.

In small fields, in attic chests and among the contrarians some have survived. A little bit like the “hobby” farmers saving rare breeds, a novelty can be a thing worth saving for its actual novelty. 

Podcast footnote:

When I say hobby farmer, a little bit of sick comes to the back of my throat. It’s term of derision given smaller landholders by real estate agents and the 10,000 acre types. The smallholder is more likely to experiment, to be biodiverse and have a  far greater % trees on their block than the plough from fence line to fence line crowd. Now the person with five acres and a bloody ride-on mower who sprays fence lines with glyphosate and spends their entire weekend mowing, does not fall into this group. They are just suburbanites with too much land.

Rant and podcast footnote over.

There are seed companies out there with huge numbers of seed varieties and we should support them, I believe. But the twentieth century lost seeds are a matter of great pain.

I’ve mentioned seed banks before, Svalbard in Norway is a big one and the Saint Petersburg Pavlovsk Experimental Station, started by Nikolai Vavilov who died in Stalin’s gulags is another place to which we owe much as a species and as gardeners. Vavilov decided it would be a useful thing to collect seed from the apparent birthplaces of commercial crops. The Pavlovsk station was opened in 1924. By the outbreak of the second world war, it had collections of wheat, barley, rice and other seeds. In those days Saint Petersburg was known as Leningrad. And during WW2 Leningrad was under siege for 900 days.Food shortages, hunger, starvation and death all come with sieges and especially with long sieges yet the good research staff at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station protected their seed collections, some dying of starvation surrounded  by bags cereal seeds. This blows my mind and I think, behooves us to treat each seed we touch, from the tiniest little strawberry seed to biggest ones we plant with a certain reverence. They carry the history of humans moving out of Africa, and the history of those who remained behind, they contain the millions of selection decisions across time, decisions being made for the most part before we had any idea of genetics. And here we are with seeds a plenty, with biodiversity in our hands. 

I think it a useful thing to pause before planting and contemplate the eons of evolution which contributed to the packets of genetic information in my hand that will feed me, mine and others. This is the wonder of this planet. With some water, soil, sunlight and time we can multiply the number of seeds we hold in our hands exponentially. It is awe inspiring, I find it so.

Maybe pause next time before you plant and contemplate the wonders of the seeds in your hands. The shared humanity, the interconnections with Nature, the poetry of existence in those tiny packets of genetic information.

And, of course to: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




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Pavlovsk Experimental Station


Nikolai Vavilov

The Siege of Leningrad


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