Of the Earth: Of seed savers, sustainability and shishigatani

  • Melinda McCreven, Cabin Fever Seed Swap organizer, and guerilla gardener Danny Botkin of Gill with a clump of leeks seeds. Submitted photo

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

If you had suggested to me a year ago that I would spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in February at the 11th annual Cabin Fever Seed Swap in Greenfield and, further, that this swap would be PACKED with folks I know from other walks of life (rockers, poets, posers, litigators, line cooks etc.), NONE of whom had ever ONCE bothered to mention to me an affinity for seeds or swapping ... well, I honestly don’t know how I would have responded to such a suggestion.

Except, perhaps, to have said, “Sounds pretty weird, sign me up!”

Without signing up, I was greeted warmly by event organizer Melinda McCreven of Inflorescence Farm in Greenfield, who said that Dan Botkin, Gill’s original guerilla gardener, would be speaking. Other than that, I thought, what could one report about folks sifting through pill bottles and baggies containing the dried leftovers of some distant meal?

Lots, it turns out. Botkin never did get around to making his formal presentation because he and everybody else were so busy with free-for-all seed savoring. There were folks like Sadie Stull at the Hilltown Seed Savers, and others from Great Falls Apple Corps in Turners Falls. People were bouncing between tables, waving dried clumps of leek seeds, running their fingers though pole beans, wondering at the fine points of season, sustainability, soil and moisture, and taking in Botkin’s freewheeling approach to permaculture.

Take leeks. Botkin handed out clumps of seeds — clumps, he advised, that had thousands of seeds and can simply be inserted into unprepared ground. No rows. This, for Botkin, seems to be more than seeding technique. It is an article of faith. Perhaps even a lifestyle.

“I take ridiculous risks with them ...” said Botkin. Why? “Because I can.” There are thousands of seeds in every clump, stuck random in the soil, harvested incrementally as some survive and others don’t and still others find mature perfection.

Some growers make lists of what must be done to maintain a well-mapped garden.

“Every morning, I get to simply scan to see what I can get away with not doing,” Botkin said Now take Shishigatani. Danny Botkin knows his way around curcubits. You know — pepo, moschata, maxima. Gourds, squash. And while he thinks that seed purity is overrated, and while shishigatani isn’t exactly local in origin, Danny is truly taken with this rare hour-glass squash and its seeds. It was developed near Kyoto in the early 1880s and still linked to its cuisine. Its name refers to “deer valley path” and honors a deer who helped recover a lost Buddhist priest. It is said to cure paralysis. Kyotan recipes aside, Botkin prefers his Shi homegrown and raw — “dense, sweet and nutty.”

I got home that afternoon clutching my leek cluster like a second-grader with a science project, yammering to my dear Sadie about geneticist Ivanovich Vavilov, who died in a prison camp in 1943 rather than plant and consume the seeds he protected; and about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. I mentioned Danny’s take on permaculture and mulching — “if you see bare soil, cover it.”

“Do we have to do it that way?” Sadie asked nervously. “Nope,” I said, “but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.”

Wanna learn more? Botkin will offer a three-hour session titled “Farming on the Fringe Guerilla Propagation Tactics for the Backyard Farm or Garden.” It’s at his Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, on Sunday, March 4, at 1 p.m. This intro-level workshop inspired by both permaculture principles and guerilla gardening, the session will explore low-tech practices including “no till soil building. “Other sessions include “Farming the Dark Side: Low Tech Seasons Extension on April 8, “Backyard Goat Dairy” on May 6, and “Intro to Fermenting” on June 3. There sliding suggested donation is $25 to $40 for each.

The Cutting Board

Speaking of cutting: Please write me. Send words of comfort and recipes for comfort food. I’m about to spend a few days in the hospital, and more than a few days on the mend ... and your submission will keep this column going even if I can’t spend much time in the field. What dishes lift your spirits?

In the meantime, here’s Danny Botkin’s shishigatani at work in a dish you might find in Kyoto:

Shishigatani Kabocha to Koimo to Tako no Nitsuke


12 taro (koimo)

½ shishigatani squash (shishigatani kabocha)

1 package octopus (tako)

3 cup bonito and kelp soup (dashi)

3 T sake

3 T sugar (satou)

3 T light soy sauce (usukuchi)

1 T mirin

8 snowpea (kinusaya)

Wash taroes, then peel and boil.

Wash shishigatani (LOCAL) squash, remove the seeds and strings, and peel. Cut squash into bite-sized and boil.

Cut octopus into bite-sized chunks and boil. Put the bonito and kelp soup, sake, sugar, light soy sauce and mirin in a pan. Add the squash, taro, and octopus. Then simmer for 15 or 20 minutes.

Remove the string of snowpea and boil.

Dish up taro, squash and octopus in individual bowl. Serve with boiled snowpea.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of SKATERS: A Novel. Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.