Fresh & Local
The Tiniest of Miracles
Column #39, Published June 15th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

My neighbor Donnie Johnston writes a column for another newspaper. In one of his recent columns, he mentioned that clover is everywhere this summer. A large percentage of both red and white clover seeds have very hard seed coats. These seeds have the ability to lie dormant in the ground for years. Then one year when the conditions are just right, they germinate all at once.

Donnie is quite right. This is one of those years for clover. Red clover is normally used in hay fields. White clover will tolerate close grazing, so it is normally used in pastures. Our fields were once dairy pasture, so they are covered this year with swells of dark green leaves and white flowers. I understand now what the expression “being in clover” means.

But how do all those seeds know that this is the year? How is it possible that something so tiny can perceive year to year differences in spring-time temperatures and rainfall?

We grow greens, and the two most popular greens are spinach and lettuce. Both of these greens are cool season crops that will not tolerate hot weather. Every May when the weather climbs into the 90s, they bolt (produce seed) and die.

If you replant spinach and lettuce in September, then it won’t be ready to harvest until October. That is a long time to wait. So last summer I ran a bunch of experiments to see if I could get spinach and lettuce to germinate and grow in July.

I tried everything I could think of. I tried planting the seed very deep. I tried continuous irrigation. I tried different kinds of shade cloth. Nothing worked.

I just didn’t realize how good seeds can be at monitoring temperature. No moving parts. No bimetallic strips. No electronics. And yet they accurately know the temperature.

And it isn’t just temperature. There is a rule of thumb that spinach requires about 1 inch of rain or irrigation water to germinate. Some seeds are good at monitoring the amount of water that has fallen. I don’t know how they do that, either.

I learned important lessons last summer. If you want local summer greens, try mesclun greens. Tatsoi is a reasonable substitute for spinach, and Tokyo Bekana is a good summer substitute for lettuce.

As for seeds, germination is truly a tiny living miracle that is complex beyond our ability to understand. The fact that we see this miracle a million times a day should not lesson that miracle.

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There is a mid-week farmers’ market in Culpeper. It is held at the Culpeper Farmers’ Cooperative (next door to Wal-Mart) every Wednesday from 9:00am to 1:00pm. This is a “local producer only” market, which means that everything that a vendor sells must be grown by that vendor within 100 miles of Culpeper.

Anyone interested in becoming a vendor at this market can call the Culpeper Farmers’ Co-op at (540) 825-2200 for more information.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at