FOR an all-purpose garden tool, you can’t beat a full set of molars. Andrew Montain, a 28-year-old urban farmer, presented this theory the other day in my kitchen, as he rolled a nutmeg seed in his hand like a gobstopper.
“I want to crunch into this with my teeth and see what happens,” he said. Maybe it was a shell. Maybe it was a whole seed. He was eager to find out, but first he had a question: “How’s your liability insurance?”
I had invited Andrew to my home in St. Paul not to test his dentition, but to conduct a botanical experiment: If we plopped this nugget in a tray of dirt, would it grow into a nutmeg tree?
What I was imagining was a kitchen garden in the most literal sense: a crop borne of the pantry instead of the usual seed catalog.
For generation after generation of farmers, the staple crops we ate at the table — wheat and barley, maize and beans — were the same seeds we sowed in the fields. They were descendants of the first semi-wild crops that had more or less “ ‘volunteered’ for domestication,” as Peter Thompson, the British conservationist, wrote in his 2010 book, “Seeds, Sex and Civilization.” These seeds “germinated rapidly, completely, and at low temperatures.”
Today’s farmers, with their pedigree seeds, grow foods that are bigger and more bountiful than the peasant crops of the past. The viability of the seeds these cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables produce, though, is an afterthought.
Yet whether out of nostalgia or novelty, the home gardener likes to tinker with the old ways.