the power of seeds, and of sunflowers, with ken greene
BEFORE THE WEEKS got darker, Ken Greene and I had planned a chat about a sunny subject: sunflowers. Ken is co-founder of Hudson Valley Seed Company and also of the nonprofit called Seedshed, and though he and I did get to do some sunflower dreaming, we first veered into how seeds figure into such tough moments as we are currently facing, offering resiliency. And then the talk turned to Helianthus, including the silverleaf species I adore called H. argophyllus (below)—about which the birds and beneficial insects emphatically agree.
On the Hudson Valley Seed homepage this late March 2020 and at other seed sellers, you’ll probably see a notice like this: “Please be aware that, because we are currently experiencing an increased demand for seeds, you may see a slight delay in receiving your orders.” I asked Ken about that, too.
Besides being a seed person, Ken Greene is my across-the-Hudson River neighbor. We connected remotely from his home to mine, cell phone to Skype, to talk about the power of seeds and also the literal bright spot that sunflowers can provide (and even humor, as Ken demonstrates below, by wearing one as a hat). Seems like just the crop to plant this year–like maybe ‘Autumn Beauty’ (up top), which apparently comes with its own rainbow.
Read along as you listen to the March 30, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotifyor Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
the power of seeds, and of sunflowers, with ken greene
Margaret: You’re over there?
Ken: Yes. How are you doing self-isolating up where you are?
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. We’re coping. We’re learning how to cope. [Laughter.]
It’s not just me that ordered more seeds the last week or two, right, is it?
Ken: No, it’s not. We’re really grateful, because some of our in-person events, like the Boston Flower Show, got canceled right in the middle, and we really depend on an income, and also, we love interacting with all of our customers there. We were a little worried when we were coming home early from that, and we came home to find a real increase in online seed orders like we haven’t seen for years.
Margaret: Is it all edibles that people are ordering? I mean is this a Victory Garden emotion at work, do you think?
Ken: It’s still all over the place. It’s really interesting. We have expanded our flower offerings a lot over the years. But I would say that primarily, our customers are still vegetable growers. So yes, I think like you were saying, it’s not even just that we’re seeing more customers, but people are ordering a little bit more than they normally would, which gives me the sense that people are thinking about expanding their gardens over last year.
Margaret: Right. You’re not merely a seed company person, like not just in the seed business, but as I mentioned in the intro, you have this nonprofit entity. You’re an advocate for seed preservation and the diversity, both culturally and genetically, that seeds represent, and preserving that. Your nonprofit work speaks to that. Tell us what Seedshed is just so we can have… before we digress into specific seeds and eventually sunflowers, that we can understand the rest of your world and consciousness because it sort of relates to changing times as well and historical things. Yes.
Ken: It does, definitely. I mean I still think that I like to complicate things as much as possible—at least that’s what I’m told. For me, seeds are connected to everything. My journey with seeds started with starting a seed library, which was the first seed library in the country and was really more community-focused, in terms of how do we do store seeds within our own communities and what are seed-sharing systems that we can set up for our communities?
That evolved into the Hudson Valley Seed Company, which the idea was: Can we create a model of an ethical seed company, one that’s focused on a region; that only shares open-pollinated seeds; and that has really focused on thinking about where seeds come from, how seeds are grown, who’s growing them, and how we share them?
Seedshed is the most recent, and an outgrowth of my 20-year journey with seeds, where we’re really thinking about how do we empower communities to grow toward seed sovereignty? There’s not really a good fixed definition of seed sovereignty. I think you if talk to different people about what seed ethics means or what seed justice means or what seed sovereignty means, and you’ll get a lot of different permutations of that.
But for us, what we’re really thinking about is, in many cases, seeds are very culturally embedded. When we lose seeds, we lose culture. We lose language. We lose ceremonies and traditions. We lose a sense of who we are and where we came from. What seeds mean, community by community, can be very different.
With Seedshed, we are really saying how do we think about this larger seed system, which is mostly commercial right now, and how do we get that back down to the community level, and what do communities need to make sure they’re caring for the seeds that are important to them?
One of our main programs and one of the ones that I feel most attached to is I work with the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation in northern New York, which is a partnership where there’s varieties that are disappearing. We work with the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network and our partners in Akwesasne, who are the leadership of the program, to grow seeds that are culturally important for that community back here in the Hudson Valley, which is their ancestral lands that were lost through colonization, and rematriate those seeds back to their home communities for food, for seed, but also to make sure that the culture doesn’t disappear.
Ken: Yes, absolutely. Some are like that, and some just to be able to eat the food of your people—and for that to be threatened because of our current food system and the inequalities in our food system. We feel really grateful to be able to be part of some of those solutions.
Seed-literacy workshops is a big part of what we do. We have the Seed People Portrait Series that we’re coming out, with where you get to meet seeds through their people, and get to learn about the person and why a certain seed is very close to their heart and why it’s important to them. I’m really loving this continual evolution of my relationship with seeds and understanding what seeds mean in the world.
Margaret: Speaking of seeds that have historical and cultural value and also have value as a food source and other things: the sunflower. This is a native plant of the Americas, and there’s a lot of different species and so forth. I just want to share with people that, I don’t know how many years ago, maybe 2012, I had grown this species sunflower. Helianthus is the genus, and the species is argophyllus; I don’t know how you really pronounce it, but it’s the silverleaf sunflower.
I lamented out loud, I think on the blog, the next year, when it was seed season again, and I wanted to find seeds. I had had plants given to me by somebody [the year before]. I was like, “Where can I get the seeds for this?” I think you and I started a conversation then about this particular sunflower. It’s not like the other ones, right? It’s a little different. The flowers are smaller. It’s multi-branched. It’s kind of a gawky, I don’t know, 6- or 7-foot thing, but I love it. Anyway, and it has silver leaves, felted silver leaves. I think that’s how our sunflower conversation began. Yes?
Ken: Yes. When you write on a post that you can’t find the seeds, of course, I’m going to be like, “I’m going to…”
Margaret: You get agitated.
Ken: “I’m going to find those seeds, and I’m going to grow them. I’m going to make sure Margaret has those seeds.”
Ken: It’s interesting, too. This is an example of how long it can take, sometimes, for a small seed company to get to the point where they have enough seeds to share. I think a lot of people think you just are like, “Oh, we’re going to start offering the seed,” and then, suddenly, you have it. When we’re thinking about diversity and biodiversity, there isn’t a wholesale source for this seed. There isn’t some big producer growing this very specific, idiosyncratic sunflower. So we had to figure out how to do it ourselves, which led me to learn so much more about sunflowers because I think, most of the time when we think about sunflowers, people are picturing the Helianthus annuus, the annual sunflowers.
Margaret: Yes, that’s been bred for it’s bigger, bigger, bigger, showier, showier, showier… Yes.
Ken: Yes, which were native to Mexico and North America-
Margaret: Parts of the Western, I think, U.S. and Canada, yes.
Ken: … but then traveled to Europe and Russia, where they changed some more. A lot of those big, single-headed giant sunflowers that we picture actually were developed and changed a lot in Russia before they came back to North America. There’s way more native species than there are of the ones that we think of as the garden varieties, the annuus. Yours, the silverleaf that you grew, is one of those. It’s actually native to Texas.
Margaret: Yes, it’s endemic there, and I think it’s sort of sown around and found little locations in some of the Carolinas and so forth, but it’s basically endemic, at this point, to Texas.
Ken: Yes, and it’s spectacular.
Margaret: I don’t think it’s thought of as anything special there, by the way.
Ken: It’s so unique. You know lamb’s ears, that plant [Stachys byzantina]?
Ken: That’s what the leaves are like, that silvery-
Ken: … velvet, silky, fuzzy. They’re just so cool. The leaf color kind of changes color as the sun changes throughout the day. You get these grays, and these blue-grays, and these silvers. Then it’s just covered in small sunflowers, so multi-heading. It’s just blooming and blooming and blooming and blooming and blooming for a super-long season.
Margaret: Now, this one, I notice when I’ve grown it—and again, it’s this big-branched, gawky creature with these little flowers at various places around this funky-looking plant, but it’s wonderful because of that silverleaf that you said—I find that it’s an insect favorite, a pollinator/ beneficial insect favorite. It seems like they just adore this plant whereas some of the more sort of ornamental, highly-bred Helianthus annuus like fluffy ‘Teddy Bear’ [above], there’s sort of nothing for the insects in there, is there, by contrast?
Ken: Yes. If you love birds and you love watching birds, this is a wonderful variety to grow.
Ken: If you’re doing seed production… [Laughter.]
Margaret: Uh-oh, sorry. I’m sorry.
Ken: … and you want to save the seeds yourself, then this is a very challenging variety to grow. We had to buy little organza mesh bags [above], and tie these little bags individually around the blossoms once the seeds started to form. We tried every other way of keeping the birds off of it. It’s great to grow for pollinators. It’s great to grow for birds. They love it. If you want to save seeds from it, I recommend little mesh bags [laughter], which we had thousands and thousands of little mesh bags throughout the season to protect the seeds, so that we could share them.
Margaret: Now that you mentioned the birds, I’m remembering how the goldfinches adored it. Sometimes, on all these different branches—left, right, center, up, down—there’d be a goldfinch and another goldfinch and another goldfinch. Yes, yes.
Ken: Yes, they love it. Interestingly, it’s another one of those things where, in Texas, eastern Texas, I think, which is where it’s from, there’s specific bird species and insect species that really love it, but it actually grows really well here in the Northeast, but we had to learn about it first. We had to figure out the timing. We had to figure out if there was actually enough of a season to produce seed, to produce healthy seed to make it worth putting into production for the catalog. It’s wonderful to see how the species here love it so much as well, and that it can be part of supporting our native ecosystem here even though it’s something that we’re planting in our garden that’s from Texas.
Margaret: Yes. I would be tempted to start this one [indoors]—even though sunflowers don’t like their roots disturbed multiple times. You don’t want to start it in tiny cells and then pot it on to a 4-inch pot and then put it out in the garden; they don’t like multiple disruptions, I don’t think generally, but I think this one I would start indoors. Is that what you do before you transplant it once to outdoors, or what do you do with this one?
Ken: Yes. We started it early partly to give it a headstart in terms of seed production. But for any gardener who wants it to start blooming a little bit earlier, because it is on the late side if you direct-sow it, but if you want a longer season, then I would absolutely recommend starting it early. Like you said, don’t put it in too-small cells. Start it in something a little bit bigger so that you can just do one transplanting. But it transplanted beautifully; it had almost no transplant shock that we could observe.
The other interesting thing is we didn’t irrigate it. It’s from a drier area, and so we were kind of experimenting with that. We had a 100-foot by 100-foot plot [photo, top of page], which was spectacular. I think I sent you some photos…
Ken: … as it was developing in the plot. We didn’t irrigate the plot at all, and they did great. [The silverleaf sunflower at Hudson Valley Seed.]
Margaret: Let’s just talk through some others. That’s one species. The ones that are most familiar, as we’ve said, are the ones that have been derived from Helianthus annuus. Let’s talk about a little bit of the range of some of the other ones. I mentioned ‘Teddy Bear,’ the big puffy-looking one. Let’s talk about some of the other ones that you… or some of the other features of some of the other ones, because these are pretty special plants.
Ken: Yes. There’s so much diversity with the sunflowers. Do you know what we call our Sunflower Surprise Mix?
Margaret: No. [Laughter.]
Ken: Early on, when I started first growing the annual sunflowers for seed, I would bag them, not only to protect the seeds from the birds, but also because they cross-pollinate.
Ken: Sunflowers are amazing. We think of it as one flower, because we’re looking at that ring of petals around the outside, but they’re actually packed with flowers. It has the radial petals, which is part of the florets, but then each seed inside has a little flower on it, too, so it’s actually this compound conglomerate collection of flowers, which is pretty cool.
Margaret: The disks in the middle and the rays that are like the petals?
Margaret: The disk flowers, the little tight things in the middle, the flat center part?
Ken: Yes, yes, those little ones, yep—disk. We bag them so that they don’t cross-pollinate because the bees and insects love it. Early on when I didn’t know that much about what I was doing, I had bagged them with paper bags to prevent the cross-pollination, and it rained. The bags melted, as paper bags will do in the rain, so then I knew that, probably, they had cross-pollinated. I still saved all the seeds, and I mixed them all together. And then I grew them the next year, and I was like, “Wow. This is even more diversity than I started with.”
So we call it our Sunflower Surprise because: “Surprise!” [Laughter.] You never know. Maybe some will be maroons. Maybe some will be striped. Maybe some will be dwarf. Maybe some will be single-headed or multi-headed. It’s a fun mix to get introduced to that kind of diversity, but then we offer lots of individual varieties, and one of my favorite is the ‘Velvet Queen.’
Margaret: Yes, me too.
Ken: Which can get very maroon, deep maroon. There’s still a range within it. Some are more orange [above]. Some have orange with stripes. When you get those deep, velvety, maroon flowerheads from it, they are just gorgeous. I love the artwork that we commissioned for that, which has a lot of symbols in it about, actually, feminism and women leaders throughout history, but also ties in a lot to the history of sunflowers and seed-saving for sunflowers.
Margaret: That’s for the packet [below].
Ken: It’s a great work of art to really look at carefully, and see all the different elements.
Margaret: That’s for the packet, on the seed packet. You have your Art Packs that are so beautiful.
Ken: Yes, silverleaf has armadillos on it. Some people miss them because they’re in the shadows of the leaves, but I’m just… was so excited to have a seed pack that has the armadillos on it. [Laughter.] Yes, ‘Velvet Queen’ has some great art, too, and the ‘Teddy Bear’ also.
Margaret: In the last three, four minutes, I just want to ask you about some words that are maybe unfamiliar to people that are words that have to do with sunflowers. We’ll do a quick exchange. Tell me what heliotropism is.
Ken: Yes. I mean sunflowers are just so cool. [Laughter.]
Margaret: They are.
Ken: Heliotropism, a lot of people believe that the flowers track the sun; it’s a common idea. That word heliotropism has to do with plants where they track the movement of the sun. The truth of sunflowers is they do that at the bud stage, before they flower, and that’s to gain as much heat and energy from the sun as possible. Once they flower, though, they actually wind up facing east, and they pretty much stay facing east.
Margaret: O.K. Then there’s this thing, real quick, Fibonacci sequence. What the heck?
Ken: That’s another fascinating thing about sunflowers. The Fibonacci sequence is a mathematical algorithm, and you can see this algorithm in the way that the seeds are arranged in a sunflower, that inter-spiraling shape that’s kind of dizzying to look at. That is the most number of seeds that you can fit in a circle, in terms of geometry. The plant knows how to use that circle the most efficiently to produce the most number of seeds in that shape.
Margaret: The last one I was just going to throw out is the allelopathic traits. I know that, as a birdfeeding person, I only feed sunflower to the birds, and I feed shell-less “hearts” or whatever, kernels, because the seeds, especially, the woody-like seeds, are allelopathic. They exude a chemical that makes all the plants below there not grow [laughter], so I get bare spots in my garden, right?
Ken: Yes. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, I’m going to grow a sunflower, and I’m going to plant something at its base so that it can climb up the sunflower.”
Ken: What they find is what they planted at the base suffers. Similarly to black walnut trees, which we know there’s very few things that can grow under a black walnut tree, and that’s because it is allelopathic. Sunflowers are mildly allelopathic. The advantage for gardeners is less weeding. It does a lot of the weeding for you. When you grow a patch of sunflowers, there’s going to be less work for you in that patch than with other things.
Margaret: Well, Ken, we started out talking… I did a little bit of a bleak introduction, maybe, to this, but I have to say just talking to you for a few minutes here about seeds and sunflowers, in particular, I feel a little better. I guess that’s your message, right?
Ken: We can look at this increase in seed buying as that people are worried, or that people are freaking out or whatever, but part of it also is that seeds are hopeful.
Ken: They embody this sense of potential, this idea that things keep changing, that we can transform our experiences in the world through gardening, through the joy of watching seeds grow, and also this amazing possibility to feed ourselves, care for ourselves, feed our community and care for our community. All of that is in that little tiny package of the seeds.
I like to think that this uptick in the purchasing is also because people have hope, and they want to feel hopeful, and they want to share and take care of themselves and their family and their friends and their community through growing.
Margaret: Well, I vote for that. Thank you. Thank you for making the time. I’ll talk to you again soon. O.K.?
Ken: Yes, thanks. Always good to talk to you, Margaret.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 30, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).