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Required Reading: ‘What We Sow’ by Jennifer Jewell

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Required Reading: ‘What We Sow’ by Jennifer Jewell

September 20, 2023

As promised in the full title of this latest book from Jennifer Jewell, What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds is a conversational compendium of all things seed-related. For listeners of Jewell’s authoritative podcast Cultivating Place, a lively survey of current garden thinking mixed with personal insight, the atmosphere will be comfortingly familiar. For less experienced gardeners who may be happy to trade the effort and time of sowing seeds for the extra cost of buying pre-germinated plants, you might learn that what you think is helping the ecology of your garden could be doing more harm than good. For all gardeners, the world contained within a seed is definitely worth exploring.

Above: Stages of an echinacea, from pollinated cone to seed head to seed dispersal. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Part of the point of sowing seeds is independence, freedom from the lack of choice at garden centers and an opportunity to step away from corporate dominance. Seeds are best gathered from small—and ideally local—sources that sell organic or responsibly-raised, open-pollinated plants that will thrive where you live. With an exquisite perennial, bought in a pot from a bijou Brooklyn plant store, this is rare: it will have been raised to look good until it meets the alien conditions of your garden, at which point it goes into shock.

Sowing (and swapping) seeds is especially enjoyable in a designated seed-sowing place such as a glasshouse or the pleasant fug of a hoop house. Or a table by a window. Image via Higgledy Garden.
Above: Sowing (and swapping) seeds is especially enjoyable in a designated seed-sowing place such as a glasshouse or the pleasant fug of a hoop house. Or a table by a window. Image via Higgledy Garden.

That’s not all—plants from unknown sources are more likely to have been treated with a systemic insecticide, which infects every part of the plant, killing beneficial insects as well as “pests.” In the corporate seed business, neonicotinoids are also applied to a seed’s coating, following the organism at every stage of its life and affecting the water and soil around it. The alluring label “Perfect for Pollinators” (very popular in the UK) is, in this case, death to pollinators.

What we sow and have sown traditionally is strongly connected to cultural identity, in a way that buying plants-as-decoration is not. Rowen White, Jewell’s “unofficial poet laureate of Seed” reminds us that Indigenous people (she identifies as a Mohawk woman) made an agreement with plants, one in which it was understood that honor and respect towards the earth was unquestionably the more useful approach. (In a way, the book is an offshoot of the podcast, a kind of footnote in which expert commentators are allowed their say.) “It is through these relationships with plants and seeds that I’m finding my way home to a deeper understanding of being human,” says White.

Above: Tim Mountz of organic seed company Happy Cat Farm collects seed at the fruit is at peak ripeness. See: Grow What You Love: A Life of Tomatoes. Photograph by Valery Rizzo.

The idea of seeds as the foundation of humanity is established from the beginning of the book. Seed that is traded and shared is bound up with friendship and community, just as the bounty of home-grown fruit and vegetables becomes a less pricey and far more precious commodity than the equivalent in a grocery store.

Above: A selection of acorns from the diversity of oaks native to the Californian valley that is Jennifer Jewell’s home. Image via Jennifer Jewell.

Jewell’s book is part diary, part discussion point. In the month of October, she focuses on oak trees. “They are ‘planting’ their acorns with abandon right now. The ground is covered in the beautiful plump fruit, and the seed inside will grow powerfully both up and down,” she writes, poetically. “Those that survive the first year, and then the first ten years, will provide food and shelter for many, many other lives—both floral and faunal—for the next 100 to 200 years, if not more.”

What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds by Jennifer Jewell was published yesterday by Timber Press.

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Frequently asked questions

What is 'What We Sow' by Jennifer Jewell about?

Jennifer Jewell's book, 'What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds,' is a conversational compendium that explores various aspects of seeds. It delves into the personal, ecological, and cultural significance of seeds, offering insights into the world of gardening, seed-sowing, and the impact of seeds on our lives.

Who is the target audience for this book?

The book is suitable for a wide range of readers. For listeners of Jennifer Jewell's podcast 'Cultivating Place,' it will feel familiar and engaging. It offers valuable insights for experienced gardeners and may also benefit less experienced gardeners who want to understand the ecological implications of their gardening choices.

What are some key takeaways from 'What We Sow'?

Readers can expect to learn about the importance of sowing seeds for independence, biodiversity, and ecological health. The book emphasizes the value of sourcing seeds from small, local, and organic sources that sell open-pollinated plants. It also sheds light on the environmental impact of corporate seed practices and the role of seeds in cultural identity.

How does the book address the ecological aspect of seeds?

The book highlights the ecological significance of seeds by discussing the potential harm caused by systemic insecticides used on plants from unknown sources. It also explores the impact of corporate seed practices, such as the application of neonicotinoids, on pollinators and the environment.

What cultural insights are provided in 'What We Sow'?

Jennifer Jewell's book touches on the cultural significance of seeds and their connection to cultural identity. It includes insights from experts, such as Rowen White, who emphasizes the relationship between Indigenous people and seeds, emphasizing respect for the earth and a deeper understanding of being human through these relationships.

Is 'What We Sow' available for purchase?

'What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds' by Jennifer Jewell was published by Timber Press. It is available for purchase from bookstores and online retailers.

Where can I find more information about Jennifer Jewell and her work?

You can find more information about Jennifer Jewell, including her podcast 'Cultivating Place' and other projects, on her website and through Timber Press, the publisher of her book.

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