Ten days ago, in what I dubbed The Great Asparagus Experiment, I put thirty asparagus seeds between two damp paper towels and left them in a Ziploc bag. To do their thing. Which would hopefully be absorbing water and joining the ranks of things that look less like rocks.
As I’ve been known to do, I nervously checked on them each morning and night, carefully peeling back the top layer of paper towel for a sneak peak at their first signs of progress. After a few days, I had the distinct impression that the seeds were larger than when I’d put them in, but still just as black, round, and hermetically sealed. A few days more, and the only visible change was the appearance on the paper towels of several spots of green and gray mold. Now, unexpected mold can be a blessing—I hear this is how penicillin was discovered—but it wasn’t really what I was hoping for in this case. Just as I was beginning to think I might have to change the sheets on my little asparagus bed, I saw it: a root. A tiny, miniscule, barely perceptible white root emerging from the side of one of those little black rocks. And when I looked closer, I saw that this rock was not alone. Several of his fellows had also broken their coats and sent forth their first appendages in search of water, nutrients, and the comforting cradle of the earth.
I didn’t want to disappoint. And I certainly didn’t want things to start resembling my first experience in botany—when, in elementary school, the roots of my germinating lima beans had grown so thickly in and around each other and their paper towel that they could only be planted by ripping off the majority of their life’s work. Pop, pop, poppety pop. Not an experience I wanted to relive. My germinating asparagus seeds needed to find themselves in their separate little containers of soil as quickly as possible.
So I rounded up a couple dozen tin cans and nailed holes in the bottom. I finally found another waterproof tray to put under what will now be the fourth tray of seedlings in my bedroom. (I’m going to need yet another tray when I start tomatoes and peppers March 1. Not sure where that’s going to come from.) I mixed some more potting mix. And then I started putting the little guys half an inch deep in their new homes.
I realized, as I was dropping them one by one into their pots (and trying to remember which pots I’d already planted and which I hadn’t), that only about half the seeds had actually sent out roots. Eighteen out of thirty. Since I only had twenty-four pots (and only needed twenty-four plants), I decided to put the still ungerminated seeds two to a pot, and hope that the odds would work in my favor. I remembered that the tested germination of the seeds, printed on the packet, was 85%. That ought to be just about right.
But once I’d set the tray of new pots on a shelf and covered it all with aluminum foil to keep in the moisture (I was out of plastic wrap), I found myself wondering, Why is 85% considered an acceptable rate? Wouldn’t the optimal germination rate be 100%? Why don’t seed companies shoot for that? Well, they probably do. After all, that would be most convenient for farmers and gardeners. Total predictability. But that very night, I came upon a passage in Richard Mabey’s book Weeds that clearly explained to me why nature doesn’t do things that way. Wild plants have to deal with unpredictable conditions: for instance, flood followed by drought, or heat followed by cold. If every seed uniformly sprouted when exposed to a little moisture and warmth, an entire population could get wiped out by an uncertain spring. Nature very wisely makes some seeds with preferences that differ from the norm. When conditions get strange, it’s these eccentrics who save the species. (Could humans be similar?)
So, if not all my asparagus seeds sprout, and even if I’m left with one or two completely empty pots, I’ve decided not to complain. Plants have personalities for a reason. If I wanted strict conformity, I would have given up gardening long ago.