Q&A with Julie Thompson-Adolf, author of “Starting & Saving Seeds”

By Shelley Pierce | May 20, 2019
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by Shelley Pierce
May 20, 2019

Julie Thompson-Adolf is an obsessive organic gardener, nature nut, ecoadventurer, animal advocate, and seed lover. As an experienced gardener and garden writer, Julie is best known for her brand and blog, Garden Delights. Julie’s suburban “microfarm” is a regular site for tours and teaching. She’s a Master Gardener, has served on the National Garden Bureau’s Plant Nerds team, and joined with P. Allen Smith for Garden2Blog. Julie’s a member of Garden Writers’ Association, Slow Food, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and many other environmental and gardening groups. In her latest book, “Starting & Saving Seeds“, Julie offers the tools you need to become a seed starting and saving champion. Enter below to win one of two copies from Quarto Publishing Group!

How and why did you become a seed-starting and seed-saving champion?

I’ve always gardened. My earliest memories involve helping my mother plant petunias along the side of our house. However, both she and my dad grew up in the years following the Great Depression. In their families, they grew food out of necessity””my father’s family lived on a dairy farm, and their garden needed to feed a hungry farm family with a lot of kids. So, once my parents were comfortable, they never grew a vegetable garden. It didn’t have the romantic appeal that it offers to so many of us. But they did always buy the freshest produce from local farms.

A few things conspired to focus my growing efforts on food growing, in addition to my floral gardens: the recession hit, and my husband was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. Suddenly, friends worried about how they’d feed their families if disaster struck, while I tried to figure out how to better align our family’s meals to meet my husband’s health needs. Overnight, I basically began growing food””and helping my friends and community learn how to grow food, too.

However, I didn’t want to grow just any food. I wanted to grow beautiful, interesting food with stories to tell. I read everything I could about heirlooms””including their history, the many varieties, the people who championed them””and I was hooked. The first year, I grew 64 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. The second year, I grew 184 varieties. It’s a bit of an obsession.

Because so many people worried about the economy at the time, I tried to show that growing food from seed offered a great value, and I encourage friends to get together and share seeds to minimize the initial expense. Once you’ve grown a garden the first year, saving seeds from the best, healthiest plants should help minimize expenses for future seasons.

The more I read about heirlooms, too, the more I wanted to help preserve varieties that teeter on the brink of extinction. So, I spent time writing about heirlooms and learning more about the people and cultures behind different varieties, hoping to generate awareness and encourage people to grow those crops””and save the seeds. I’m a member of Slow Food and Seed Savers Exchange, and they do an amazing job of ensuring culturally important foods remain available.

Why should we grow from seed versus buying starter plants at our local nursery?

There are many reasons to grow from seed. First, you’ll find an amazing selection of fruit, vegetables, and herbs available in seed catalogs””purple peas, gorgeous striped tomatoes, speckled lettuce””that you won’t see at Home Depot. At the big box stores, you’ll find mostly round, red hybrid tomatoes and some romaine lettuce. It’s gotten better in recent years, but it’s still not great. Plus, when growing from seeds, you can find varieties that perform well in your region. Tomatoes that need a long summer to produce aren’t appropriate for the cooler north, so it’s easier to choose plants to grow that are regionally appropriate. Talking to farmers and home gardeners in your region is a great way to learn what grows well where you live, as opposed to crops that might be susceptible to disease in high humidity, for instance. Growing plants from seed that do well in your region will ultimately make you happier, too, because they’ll produce better!

Growing from seed is economical, particularly if you partner with a friend or two. One tomato plant at the store can cost $4, while a pack of 25 seeds (or more) is usually less than $3. Plus, many seeds last for years with proper storage, so that $3 goes a long way to ensuring tomatoes in your garden for years! And, if you get a little overzealous and start too many plants, you can often sell the extras. That’s how my business began: I grew too many plants and started selling at our local farmers’ market. It was a lot of fun””and a nice way to make a bit of money to fund my gardening habit!

Additionally, growing from seed ensures better control over your plants. If you want to grow organically, you know exactly what ingredients have touched your plant. You also can better monitor the care of your plant.  We’ve all seen those poor, droopy plants at the stores that needed some TLC. When you grow your own plants from seed, you can ensure the best care for them, combatting any pest issues quickly and feeding them to grow healthy, strong transplants.

Honestly, one of the main reasons I grow from seed is the emotional satisfaction that comes from the seed to garden to table to seed experience. I love the sense of accomplishment that a tiny seed that I nurtured grew into a beautiful plant that feeds my family, or a lovely bouquet I can share with friends. Saving seeds from plants started from seed is also a great feeling of self-sufficiency.

In your book you mention that 94 percent of seeds have been lost in the past two hundred years.  Why is this happening, why should we be alarmed and what can we do to curb this trend?

It’s a little tricky to answer this question for me. First of all, I’m a fan of science. My father left the dairy farm and became a well-renowned scientist, and I appreciate the brilliant minds that help our culture grow and innovate.

However, along with science came a quick growth of Big Ag. I have very mixed feelings about it, particularly with its impact on family farms, heirlooms, and the threat to our environment. Many food varieties became lost, because they couldn’t be grown to scale or weren’t profitable. Many seeds were lost due to introductions of hybrids that offered better disease resistance, yields, and other benefits. Hybrids are not the enemy””in fact, many varieties solve a lot of problems for growers, such as wilt resistance. However, when a handful of corporations control seed production, it’s problematic. The resurgence of interest in heirlooms makes my seed-loving, storytelling, history-adoring heart happy.

How does this book help us adopt and practice a seed-to-table-to-seed approach?

Starting and Saving Seeds offers an easy-to-follow resource that’s meant to be next to you on the potting table, helping you know the tricks for starting different seeds. Some seeds are challenging””they have hard seed coats that require scarification, for instance, in order to get the seed to germinate. Some seeds need a stratification period””exposure to cold””before they’ll germinate. Some seeds need an overnight soaking in water to grow more easily. How does a new gardener know that? It can cause a lot of frustration when you’ve sown seeds and nothing happens, simply because you didn’t know the tricks for each type of seed. Starting and Saving Seeds tells exactly what each seed needs for successful germination, growth, and””ultimately””planting in the garden.

In their excitement, many new gardeners forget some necessary steps after their seedlings have grown and before planting in the garden, such as hardening off. It’s so frustrating to pamper the seedlings along, only to kill them by exposing them too quickly to outdoor conditions. The book tells all the steps necessary””from the tricks to getting seeds to germinate to potting up to hardening off to growing the plants successfully, as well as when to harvest the veggies or fruits””and when and how to harvest the seeds. It’s an all encompassing resource, with easy-to-reference sidebars to help the gardener find information fast.

Growing from seed may be intimidating to beginners.  What advice do you have for those who are new to gardening?

Don’t be like me. Start slowly! Make a list of four or five of your favorite vegetables, herbs, or flowers, and grow those from seed the first year so that you don’t get overwhelmed. My first year growing seeds was insane. I felt the need to grow hundreds of different vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers””I wanted to grow EVERYTHING. I did it, but it was overwhelming, especially since I needed to learn processes. Limit yourself to five things to grow inside, and maybe direct sow a few easy seeds outside, like zinnias. They’re simple to grow and highly rewarding with a great, long-lasting burst of color in the garden.

Also, avoid fads on Pinterest when seed starting. I cringe when I see poor little seedlings crammed into eggshells perched on a kitchen windowsill. Yes, it looks cute for that photoshoot””but it’s not healthy for the seedling to grow with several dozen others in one tiny bit of growing medium, especially without adequate light! It drives me crazy the amount of misinformation on seed starting that’s out there. If a gardener tries to replicate it, they’ll end up with weak, leggy, often diseased seedlings. Just follow the easy directions in the book. You’ll still get pretty Instagram photos””along with healthy plants!

For those gardeners who embrace a challenge – what are some of the most notoriously difficult plants to grow from seed?

Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are a little tricky and good for someone who wants a bit of a challenge. They like bottom heat, and the easiest way to grow them is to invest in a heat mat. They’re not terribly difficult to grow, but they do require a bit more effort and a little extra patience.

Some perennials also prove a little challenging, as they can be a bit persnickety, requiring stratification””and then, not even rewarding the gardener with blooms until the second year, like many Echinacea varieties. Still, they’re worth the effort.

Certain herbs, like rosemary and lavender, grow slowly from seed. Again, patience is a virtue. If you’re having trouble growing specific seeds, make sure you know what that seed requires. Some seeds, like lettuce, need light to germinate, so it needs to be sown on top of the soil, or only covered with a dusting of soil. Other seeds, like carrots, will not be happy in rocky, dry, clay soils””they need loamy, loose soil to grow well. Using the book as a resource will help gardeners avoid frustration.

Every gardener has a plant bucket list.  What plants on your bucket list do you hope to try growing from seed this year that you have never tried before?

Trillium. I love, love, love trillium, and I have yet to grow it successfully from seed. My husband gave me seeds a few years ago, I started them”¦and I killed them.

Trillium takes up to TWO YEARS to germinate, and another five to seven years before the plants bloom. As much as I love the plant and love seeds””I just don’t have that patience. I’m trying hard to cultivate patience this year!

My friend recently asked me to try to grow various Protea seeds for her. I’m excited to try them””I’ve never grown them! Still, they take one to three months for germination. I’m going to practice patience, since I don’t want to kill her seeds.

Honestly, if I’ll try to grow anything from seed. Why not? It’s so much fun, and the rewards are worth the challenge!

Enter to win one of two copies of Starting & Saving Seeds!


To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight (EST) on Sunday, May 26, 2019 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Why do you want to become a seed-starting and seed-saving champion?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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