words: Jessica Sowards
Last winter, just like the several before it, I spent hours poring over heirloom seed catalogs. It’s been my winter tradition for years now. Every year, when the weather turns cold and mean, a stack of seed catalogs sits with sticky notes and pens next to my green chair. There, as close to the fireplace as a cold-natured person can comfortably sit, I turn the pages, and my list grows. My friends buy me seeds for my birthday in December. My husband Jeremiah slips money into my stocking at Christmas with a note, “For seeds.”
Last winter was no exception. In fact, last winter may have found an even more intense focus on seeds, because last winter we doubled the size of our garden. When February came, perhaps slightly hastily, I started more than seventy-five varieties of heirloom tomatoes in my greenhouse. That little space is my haven in the weeks counting down to the last frost. It becomes a womb filled to the brim with bright green life on a brown and sleeping farm.
When spring came with her Bradford pear blossoms and her promise not to let the winter freeze my world for at least seven months, I met her at the garden gate in my overalls with a shovel in one hand and pulling a wagon full of tomato plants in the other. In spring, I planted my garden. With the help of my husband and friends, the dreams and plans of the winter unfurled their roots and leaves in my 10,000-square-foot space. And they grew. My goodness, did they grow.
That wide array of heirloom plants grew with such fervor, stretching their arms to the sun like ardent worshippers. They covered my kitchen table with their offerings, and in turn, I took to YouTube, to Instagram, to Facebook. I turned to whatever platform I had and told of finding passion in the garden. I encouraged people to try, and when they failed, to try again.
I wasn’t looking for a job in teaching people how to garden. I wasn’t looking to sell seeds. I just cared about it so much that people noticed. The world is full of those barely surviving. Thriving catches people’s attention.
In summer, my garden thrived. Under the watchful eye and industrious hand of the gardener, my garden grew into a glorious thing. And all those seeds? The ones I’d collected in the dead of winter? They grew into massive plants covered in fruit. Tomato plants with ancestor seeds that had passed hands on the Underground Railroad. Melons rescued from the brink of extinction in Punjab by a seed collector passionate enough to bring some home to his little garden and call them worthy. Cucumbers with stories that started in Paris. And peppers from a village in South America. Over and over, plant after plant was laden with stories.
I have always been a storyteller. Much like with the window seat of an airplane, I cannot help but contain the girl in me when it comes to a good story. But I became accustomed to the overwhelmed look on people’s faces when they would visit my greenhouse or garden. When I would begin spouting off the history of countless varieties of heirlooms, Jeremiah, in his gracious gentleness, would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Honey, I think you may be overwhelming them.”
I’d laugh and apologize, though I wasn’t sorry. The stories just overflowed from that place that cared so much. And even if they weren’t for everyone, I knew they were important.
When I first started telling the stories on my YouTube channel, I expected the same response. The bewildered “Whoa, whoa. Slow down.” But it didn’t come. Instead, the story lovers gathered, and they listened, and they asked for more.
My YouTube channel grew. I shared my garden and the stories that grew in it, and I found there were others who cared. Then, one morning in the summer, an email came that left me dancing by the bed in my nightgown. I’d been invited to California, to the National Heirloom Seed Expo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. Their catalog had sat at the top of my stack for years. They wanted me to come speak at their expo about my joy for the garden and about the stories of heirloom vegetables.
I said yes.
In the fall, Jeremiah and I spent an entire day on airplanes making our way to California. I felt like a child who had been given a gold star for her excitement. We spent three days at the expo meeting people from all over who were passionate about real food and about growing heirlooms. There were vendors with seeds, and plants so rare, I’d never even heard of them before. I stood at a vendor booth and smiled to myself as I heard the seed seller telling of jewel-toned beans as if they were, in fact, gems.
There was an exhibition hall, with a mountain of squash that towered over my head. Along dozens of tables were fruits and vegetables I’d never seen aside from the glossy pages of seed catalogs. We returned home with so many seeds, we had to make an unplanned trip to the store to purchase an extra carry-on bag. And just like that, my storybook grew.
As a thirty-two-year-old woman, only just stretching her legs into the world of heirlooms, I feel like I’m only on Chapter Three of my own gardening story. It is a beautiful tale. One with magical places like warm, rock-floored greenhouses that smell like earth and life. One with adventures of soaring through the skies to faraway lands to collect would-be-forgotten seeds. It is one with a beautiful supporting cast of story lovers, cheerleaders, and friends.
I don’t know where my story goes or where it ends. But one thing I can be sure of, there’s a lot of beauty, a lot of history, very good food, and there is a garden.
To watch Jessica’s garden tours, visit her YouTube channel, Roots and Refuge.