Planting seeds is an act of faith. I don't say that lightly, given that, on the spectrum ranging from faith to doubt, I tend to hang out on the far side of doubt. I'm not a believer, I'm slow to trust, and I'm a skeptic, always waiting for the part of the story that begins, "But, in reality, ..." So every time I plant seeds, tossing tiny specks into the vast, brown nothingness of a newly carved row, I always wonder if it will work, if the seeds will really sprout this time. Yet every year I am back again, buying too many seed packets, carefully preparing the soil, and, once again, rubbing my fingers together in concentration as I try to evenly disperse seeds along a row. In seeds, I trust.
But I also understand the limitations of planting seeds. I have learned the hard way that the seeds must be fresh, the soil must be warm enough (but not too warm), and the gardener (me) must be committed to keeping the soil moist throughout germination. I've also learned the value, in terms of time and money, of buying plants when I want just one or two of a variety. The first year I had a community garden plot, I bought a seed packet for everything that I wanted to grow. My tomatoes didn't ripen because I planted seeds after the last frost, when I should have been planting 6-week old transplants, the fall broccoli germinated then perished in the August heat, and the remaining seeds, most of what I had bought, spoiled in the humidity of my non-air-conditioned apartment.
Now, when planting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants for the hot season, or broccoli and cabbages for the cool season, I buy plants, one or two of each variety. I get more variety without wasting seeds, and my garden gets a jump-start into the next season. Within days, the baby plants establish and my garden takes shape, a patchwork of plants, each spaced correctly and already growing to fill its space. Buying transplants is quick and practical but doesn't compare to the satisfaction of growing plants from seeds.
The best part of cool-season gardening is growing rows of greens from seed. I love carving straight, parallel rows into the soil. I tend to use too many seeds, compensating for my inability to distribute seeds uniformly along a row by over-seeding. As the seeds fall into their row, they disappear into the dark soil, leaving me to question where I've been and to re-seed over the middle of the row. I rake a layer of soil back over the seeds and use the head of the metal rake to gently tamp down the length of the row, improving seed-to-soil contact and, later, showing me where to water.
Standing on a cinder block, watering the newly-planted garden, I admire my straight and orderly rows. For a few days, my garden is like a Zen garden, constructed from soil instead of rocks, carefully arranged yet impermanent. Seeds will sprout, in crookeder rows than I planted, and weeds will grow between the rows. The garden will be beautiful in its later stages, but that first stage of subtle rows is always the most temporary and always more orderly than the other stages. I appreciate that neatness, that emptiness, that potential. It's still an idealistic garden of vision at that point, able to turn into anything that I imagine. Once seeds sprout and plants grow, it becomes a garden of reality, perfect in ways, but also lacking in ways. Planting seeds begins one garden, the one made of soil, seeds, and water, but, in doing so, it ends another garden, the one made of planning and imagination.