Seeds hold the keys to sustaining life on this planet, and they draw cultural connections between ancestors and their descendants. To discuss her latest book, What We Sow, and the significance of seeds ecologically, culturally and personally, joining me on the podcast this week is Jennifer Jewell of “Cultivating Place.”
Jennifer had been a garden writer for newspapers and magazines for a decade when she started the first version of her public radio program in 2007 in Northern California. She wanted her show to stand out from other gardening programs by focusing on the “why” we garden rather than the “how.” In 2016, her show grew to have national reach, and she gave it the name “Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden.”
Jennifer’s new book is “What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds.” It includes interviews and histories about seeds in nature and in society, and also Jennifer’s personal thoughts and stories about her relationship with seeds, many of which only occurred to her in the process of writing the book.
On the book jacket of “What We Sow,” it states, “Jewell’s greatest passion is elevating the way we think and talk about the culture of gardening, the empowerment of gardeners, and the possibility inherent in the intersection between places, environments, cultures, individuals, and the gardens that bring them together beautifully for the benefit of all the lives on this generous planet.” That sums it up nicely.
I was recently a guest on Jennifer’s podcast, which was a great honor, and I was excited to get to turn the tables and interview Jennifer. She does a great job eliciting origin stories from her guests and how they got on the path that brought them to where they are today.
Get to Know Jennifer Jewell
Jennifer was born in 1965 in Loveland, Colorado, a little town on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The elevation there is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet.
Jennifer’s father is from a Boston family and her mother grew up in New York City and on Long Island. Her parents moved from Massachusetts to Colorado as a young married couple with one daughter — Jennifer’s older sister — and another daughter, Jennifer, on the way. Her father was pursuing a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, which was very far away from both sides of the family.
Both sides of the family loved to garden. “Both grandfathers, in fact, were the gardeners,” Jennifer says, “and my mother’s father loved tea roses and camellias. He was a big horse guy. He came from England, very, very poor, land-based kind of tenant farmer people.”
Her maternal grandfather often told a story of the family being so poor that he and his brothers would take their mother’s only pair of high-heeled shoes to steal potatoes from the neighbor farmer so their footprints could not be identified. He immigrated in the 1920s to the United States as an accomplished horse trainer and rider. He and his brothers were all top-rated polo players.
Once he retired from horse training on Long Island, he moved to interior South Carolina — another “horse country” destination — and cultivated a collection of various camellias there. “Here he let his love of gardening grow,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer’s paternal grandfather worked in insurance. For garden therapy, he raised gorgeous old-fashioned gladiolas.
“And as a mid-teenager, I thought, why is he growing all those funeral flowers?” Jennifer recalls. “But now as a middle-aged woman gardener, I think that those specialty gladiolas are just gorgeous.”
He also loved nasturtiums and scabiosa.
Jennifer says her mother was an avid gardener too, who felt called to it the way that many of us do. She got work in a small greenhouse, where Jennifer would accompany her. “I would get towed to the greenhouse and play in the potting soil under her feet,” Jennifer says.
Between her family’s history and her father’s wildlife biology Ph.D. work including tracking animals and identifying plants that animals are dependent on, she developed a deep interest in gardening and plants.
“I can still think about that time in my life and smell the scent of mountain mahogany and Ponderosa pine in the high country of Colorado, and altogether those influences just were my DNA,” she says. “I don’t think I had a choice but to go down this path someway. And I always loved words and writing. So somehow this has all come together to be where I am now.”
Jennifer graduated from Harvard University with a degree in world literature and worked for Microsoft for about six years as a writer and editor for the Encarta Encyclopedia. At the same time, she was expanding as a home gardener in Seattle, Washington, with her own piece of land.
While still working on Encarta, she started writing about gardening as a volunteer for a neighborhood “simple living” newspaper called the Phinney Ridge Review. She loved writing about gardens and continued to do so after moving for a time to the United Kingdom, and her writing career took off. However, after a decade of writing about gardens as just pretty places that people could buy as status symbols, she felt disillusioned. She wanted to get back to the simple living mindset and ethos.
After moving to Northern California, she was listening to public radio when she decided that is what she wanted to be doing.
“It doesn’t matter what you or your garden look like, you can still talk about your garden in the same beautiful, meaningful way, even if you can’t get the cover of House & Garden,” she said.
She says she lets others educate on how to garden while she is focused on why gardening matters to us. In 2016, her locally based radio program grew into “Cultivating Place,” which is now syndicated on several stations throughout the country and available as a podcast.
In addition to her latest book, which was released in September, she has also written “Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast,” published in 2021, and “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants,” published in 2020.
Jennifer has a way of bringing the reader into the scene as if they are there. She writes vivid descriptions of the smell of the potting soil and the warmth in her mother’s greenhouse. In writing all about seeds in “What We Sow,” she takes the readers chronologically through a year in the life of a seed in a diary style.
Jennifer’s interest in taking a deep dive into seeds started during the pandemic lockdown when she, like many gardeners, went online to order seeds.
“I’ve been gardening my whole life, and I have been talking about gardening as my career for 20-plus years, and to get those messages of ‘back-ordered,’ ‘out of stock,’ ‘not available’ was a real weird trigger of fear and confusion, but also this big ‘aha’ moment of: ‘I think I know a lot about seed, but I clearly do not know enough about seed.’ So that was this moment when I thought I need to teach myself a whole lot more about what is happening with seed in our world.”
There were many angles to approach the topic from, including how seeds are cared for, who oversees legislation concerning seeds, how seeds are distributed, and how they are grown.
“But then when I start doing my research, I realize that I have been a student of seed as any gardener is, and I would wager as most humans have since we were tiny, since that first acorn we picked up, or first maple samara propeller seed that we threw up in the air, or that dandelion we blew off and hoped it would go off and get our wishes for us.”
She says one of the great joys of the research was how much more she noticed seeds in her own garden and seed shed.
“The seeds of our places are far more embedded in our internalized memory than we really understand until we start paying attention to it, and once we pay attention to it, we can’t stop seeing it,” she says.
As Jennifer researched out in the world, she unearthed memories of encountering phenology and morphology over the course of her life.
“At first, those diary entries were really just a way for me to collate and collect information that I was going to add into the book with the research,” Jennifer says. “But as I went along, it also became apparent to me — much in the way that land-based peoples and cultures across the globe, across time and space, have seen their plants and seeds of their places as being relatives — that there was something important in the personal relationship between me to my mother and a seed to its parent plant, or to its lineage of plants in a particular place. How they had co-evolved and adapted and passed down important information encoded in those seeds, that felt very much like what my parents and grandparents had passed to me, even if it wasn’t highlighted as such. But I began to see it that way.”
As she wrote about seeds, recording the personal part made it feel like she had skin in the game, she says, and it also gave her a break from research that was often “disappointing, discouraging, devastating, complicated.”
The Power of Seeds
“Seed is everything,” Jennifer says. “It is our food. It is our environment. It is our cultural symbol of hope and regeneration. It is like the manifestation or apotheosis of what we think of as a religious epiphany and kind of a messiah, if you will, who replenishes the land. Because this is what seed does. And it can of course be a struggle — like when you think of invasive plant seeds or seeds that have been made toxic — but at their essence as the role they have adapted to be and co-evolved to be in our world, they are the source of all life.”
The “four elements of life” are identified as earth, air, fire and water, but Jennifer says earth, air, fire and water don’t equal life here on Earth without seeds.
“But if you add the seeds of the 300,000 flowering plants that clothe this planet, that is life,” she says.
Displaced people often can’t take much with them when they are forced to relocate, though Jennifer found that the common denominator throughout history is that they brought seeds. They would go to great lengths to secure seeds, including braiding them into their hair or sewing them into their clothing.
“Some of the most compelling and powerful work being done in the preservation and documentation and collection of seed in our world right now — or at least here in North America — is the work of cultural groups who are studying, learning, reengaging, in some cases, with the seeds that are culturally significant to them based on where their people originated from, what those native plants would’ve been, what those food crops would’ve been,” Jennifer says.
Many people are working in seed preservation and documentation for seeds of the African diaspora and Asian diaspora, she points out, adding, “Some of our leadership voices in this work are coming from Indigenous seed keepers here in North America.”
Tribal groups such as the Cherokee Nation and Akwesasne are researching what the biodiversity of seeds was like before North American plants were plowed under for European agriculture and settlement.
Mohawk seed steward Rowan White founded the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network in Northern California to help others all over the United States find their seeds, collect them and grow them on and share them forward.
“It is phenomenal work, and it feels so full of heart and hope,” Jennifer says.
She points out that Central America and South America had one of the greatest biodiversities of corn species on Earth. Today, genetically modified dent corn is the most commonly grown corn, and the corn fields are treated with pesticides.
“To go from a biodiversity of thousands of selections and species down to these two that are overly manipulated is just such a devastating loss biologically, but also culturally to the peoples that were here,” Jennifer says. “To see those reconnections happening and that biodiversity reclaimed, it just gives you hope that we can turn around so many of the things that we may have gotten very wrong in the past.”
The Connections of Heirloom Seed
I think often about the heirloom seeds that I sow. I get excited when I’m ordering something new that I know is an heirloom, and I learn about its story. On top of the joy of planting out those seeds and then harvesting the fruit, when I eat that fruit, I imagine that I’m tasting and experiencing the same flavors that people who came many generations prior to me tasted.
I have no cultural connection to these heirlooms, yet still I feel some sort of energy passing through. It gives me chills to think about what it must be like for those who do have a cultural connection and are rediscovering their roots through seeds that could have been lost.
“It’s like the Ancestry.com of plants,” Jennifer says. “People are finding their great-grandmother’s storyline through finding the particular variety of blue or red corn that she used to make.”
Jennifer has similar feelings about the cultural connection of heirloom seeds.
“The importance for me as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman to be writing about this is not to tell these people’s stories for them, but is to listen to these stories I have heard and share them as a way of trying to get reconnected to why that is also important to me,” she says. “Because it fosters or cultivates this empathy and this different worldview that maybe leads people from our kinds of ancestries to behave differently going forward and to reconnect to this cultural significance that then shifts everything for everybody.
“I think it leads us to understanding plants and places and foods and peoples differently and more compassionately, and we will make decisions differently as a result.”
One of the best ways to protect biodiversity is through seed banks. These facilities provide long-term storage of seeds so if a crop variety or native plant is lost, it can be revived through its seeds.
The most well-known seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the “Doomsday Vault,” opened in 2008 and located between Norway and the North Pole. It earned that nickname because it ensures that if a natural disaster or a war breaks out, destroying crops or wild landscapes, that genetic material won’t be lost forever. Over time, an ecosystem could be restored because its component parts are under protection.
Svalbard is administered by the Norwegian government in league with a multinational nonprofit called the Crop Trust. It has many checks and balances in place to ensure that no one can make withdrawals other than the people who deposited the seeds themselves. No corporate interests are involved in deposits and withdrawals.
Another way to preserve a seed is in situ, a Latin term meaning “in its original place.” Gardeners do this by growing out seeds every year, making sure the flowers are not cross-pollinated, saving the new seeds, and planting those seeds back in the garden the following year. For wild plants, humans can conserve biodiversity in situ by preserving 30% of our wild spaces by 2030, Jennifer says.
Seed banks are an example of ex situ, or off-site, conservation. There are about 1,700 large, organized seed banks globally run by governments or nonprofits. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.
“Groups around the world have taken their collection and made a copy of it and sent that copy to Svalbard, and that is a very beautiful and elegant idea to have a backup copy of the backup copy because of exactly where we find ourselves today,” Jennifer says, noting the threat that war and climate change poses on biodiversity.
The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas is a seed bank that focuses on saving, collecting, preserving, documenting and sharing forward seeds of the world’s dry land regions. It had been located in Aleppo, Syria, but when war broke out in 2014, that seed bank was lost. The scientists had to evacuate and could not take anything with them. Fortunately, backup seeds were at Svalbard, and now ICARDA has two new seed banks, one in Morocco and one in Libya.
“The original seed bank was completely regenerated in these two sites,” Jennifer says.
The First Seed Bank
The first seed bank was in Russia. It was started in the mid to late 1800s because Russian leaders wanted to ensure the nation would have all of the seed required to grow enough food to feed their army and grow their empire. The first seed bank protocols and documentation methods were developed there.
“The scientific study of how to best store each different kind of seed is just phenomenally interesting,” Jennifer says.
The earliest seed bank workers also had to figure out the best way to break dormancy when it came time to grow out a seed, though scientists still don’t know it all.
“For some plants, this is really easy and apparent, right? You add a little water, little light, little heat and it pops out a little green thing and you’re good to go,” she says. “But other seeds are a lot more, a lot more difficult than that.”
In one dramatic story told in Jennifer’s book, staff at a Russian seed bank that is now known as the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry died of starvation protecting the seed bank when it was under siege despite being surrounded by food. They refused to eat the seeds, sacrificing their own lives, because they knew how important the seeds were to the world.
Genetically Modified Seeds
Jennifer is not, in principle, against using technology and science to work with the genetics of seeds toward certain ends. Those ends could include creating crops that are more productive or full of more protein.
“Throughout history, humans have been selecting the plants that create the most beautiful apple, the biggest berries, the fattest wheat kernels. We have been selecting for flavor, for size, for storage, for medicinal reasons since we started interacting with plants,” she says.
Manipulating plants for our best interests or our desires is nothing new.
“That said, in doing the research I did on the way that genetic modification and engineering has rolled out across the globe has led me to a belief that I am anti it rolling out without a lot more oversight and testing and thoughtful understanding about why we’re doing it, what benefits we may or may not gain from it, but also what consequences do we need to be paying attention to.”
She questioned the wisdom of having millions of acres in the center of the United States dedicated to growing a mono-crop of genetically modified corn. Because corn is wind pollinated, it endangers the genetics and biodiversity of other corn.
“To endanger the biodiversity just for the idea of growing more corn for more profit to sell more corn syrup or biofuel or food fodder in feedlots doesn’t cut it for me,” Jennifer says. “It’s not enough of a reason for us to be endangering biodiversity for a lower quality corn for lower quality products. And that sounds harsh, no doubt, but I think we can do better. I think we are a smarter species, and if we put our values and principles in front of profits, we would make different decisions in those arenas.”
Jennifer writes in her book that mono-crops are treated with loads of chemicals that contribute to the erosion of plants, soil and wildlife ecosystem diversity in all directions.
“More and more research is showing that these neurological system disruptors are actually having very serious long-term impacts on us, our water, our soil, our ecosystems, our fauna, our children,” she says.
There are an estimated 300,000 species of flowering plants on the planet, around 240,00 of which have been formally described. They have co-evolved on the planet for 365 million years, figuring out ways to better withstand heat, drought, fire, floods and more. “They know stuff that we don’t know,” Jennifer says.
Those seeds were given to us for free by virtue of us being born on this planet, she says, so she objects to the idea that any of their genetics can be bought and sold and held by four large petrochemical pharmaceutical companies, which control 60% of the commodity seed in the world. Soy, rice, wheat and corn have sustained civilizations for thousands of years, she says, and the thought that they can be owned is “a weird human conceit.”
Power to Make Change
Since the pandemic, the United States has up to 100 million households that self-describe as being gardeners.
“That is a powerful cohort,” Jennifer says. “So the more people who harness the joy and the wonder, as well as the delicious food and beautiful flowers that they get from this ongoing activity and relationship in their lives, the fewer are going to use chemicals, the fewer are going to reach without thought for the most recent double-flowered petunia hybrid at the big box store.”
More gardeners will look for nurseries that don’t use neonicotinoids on their seedlings
“By our nature, we are in this because we love it, and it makes us so happy, and it brings something so positive. That’s our greatest strength, and that is what will keep us paying attention even when we’re tired and have so many other things to do,” Jennifer says. We still are answering Dr. Tallamy’s call and planting more natives and being less worried if some little cute caterpillar’s eating half the leaves off. Because we figure it’s all going to work out, and there are more and more of us every day, and we know we keep talking about this because there are more people to invite into this very big garden space.”
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Jennifer Jewell on the significance of seeds, you can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
How have you felt the significance of seeds? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds” by Jennifer Jewell
“Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast” by Jennifer Jewell
“The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants” by Jennifer Jewell
“Who is ‘joe gardener’? A conversation with Joe Lamp’l, Growing a Greener World” | Cultivating Place podcast
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.