Wee Sprouts in Early Spring Are a Testament to Mother Nature | Gardening

The find was an unexpected one.

They turned up, two of them, as I repotted rooted cuttings of geraniums one afternoon last week. Poking up through the dark, damp soil of a larger plant was a pair of seedlings, each sporting two tiny leaves.

I recognized them to be infant tomato plants. Despite the extreme chill of recent weeks, and limited warmth in my little greenhouse, these two seeds of a warmth-loving plant had defied the chilly odds and sprung to life. Most years, a random tomato seedling or two will pop up at some random spot, hardy volunteers determined to leave their mark on the world.

The mystery, always, is what kind of tomato it will grow. Is it a throwback to a parent of a grown hybrid, or more of a clone of the mother plant the prior year? Is it red, yellow or orange, the three color-varieties I generally cultivate? Is it a large, beefy slicing type or a teeny-tiny cherry one?

Plant pushover that I am, I rarely resist the urge to plant the upstart, just for the surprise of what it becomes. A similar volunteer two summers ago turned out to be a sort of plum tomato — a type I hadn’t planted in years — and was still bearing fruit in late fall when frost finally knocked it limp.

The two plant volunteers were transplanted to a more guarded environment and, if they survive, will be part of this season’s garden “surprises.”

One of the reasons so many of us thrive on planting and growing things are the surprises — the serendipity, if you will — from a Mother Nature ultimately still very much in charge. Without any of our help, she’ll plant, mature, set seed and develop new generations in her own way and own time.

Seeds are miracles of nature, a whole new life of productive and reproductive promise, stored in tiny parcels packed with all the ingredients for a next generation. Even under some of the unlikely conditions, they sprout, take root and grow. The cracks in any sidewalk often attest to that, as greenery pops up even in such inhospitable locations.

The Farm Journal recently published an article about research that was started in 1879 at the Lansing campus of Michigan State University, when a professor set out to study how long weed seeds remain viable in the soil. Seeds from nearly two dozen annual and biannual weeds were collected, mixed with sand and the mix placed in bottles. The bottles were then buried underground, at an obscure location known by only a handful of individuals.

While the professor passed on a century ago, the research has continued. Every 20 years, the secret seed stash has been quietly unearthed, just long enough to retrieve seeds for germination testing. Now, after 140 years, only one weed seed variety survives. When tested 20 years ago, the verbascum variety called “great mullein” still sprouted with a 48% germination rate.

Verbascums are a large family of what’s more commonly known as mullein, a familiar weed around here with its tall stalk, yellow flowers and thick, very soft leaves. One description I found of mullein referred to it as sometimes being dubbed “cowboy toilet paper.”

Farmers and gardeners do ongoing battle with the persistency of weeds. And no wonder, when seeds can survive and remain viable for well over a century. Garden advice today generally recommends storing unused seeds in tightly sealed containers in our refrigerators, or for longer periods of viability, in our freezers. Maybe underground storage is ideal, but retrieving it in February to start frozen seedlings might be a hassle.

So, tomato seeds germinating in a potted plant are only doing what nature intended them to do, despite the chilly conditions my two met after peeking up through the cool soil.

Not just seeds, but an amazing array of plants have the ability to survive through less-than-ideal conditions. Daffodils in this mood-swinging spring are a classic example..

With large clumps of daffodils in full bloom around our yard, and a freeze-watch threatening from a fearsome-looking storm front moving in, I recently gathered several dozen of the newly opened yellow and ivory blooms, set them in water and put them in a cool spot. If near-record-low temperatures were likely to impact their beauty, friends would appreciate cheery bouquets salvaged from frostbite.

After two mornings of sunrise temperatures of 20-degrees, most of the daffodil blossoms had collapsed to the ground, limp and drooping. I was happy to have saved at least a few of them. But two days later, after temperatures rose to slightly more seasonable overnight lows, and sunshine splashed across the landscape, nearly all of the collapsed blooms perked back up, standing sturdy and gently waving in the breeze.

In fickle April, resiliency might be spelled DAFFODIL.

And their perky resurrection was an upbeat surprise.

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