In the early spring when the snow is hardly off the ground I’m already dreaming about my summer garden bounty. My thoughts are stirred by the warming soil and by seed starting. Chief among these are the heirloom sweet peppers whose seeds have been carefully nurtured from one season to another since my grandfather brought them with him from Italy in 1915. They are the peppers of his village. More than that I never knew, although I discovered this varietal in general is called Corno di Toro (Bull’s Nose) for their elongated shape.
One thing is sure. These seeds have had a well travelled history. After being brought from Italy, the peppers were a perennial fixture in my grandfather’s kitchen garden in Wellsburg, West Virginia. My father grew them in his garden in Northeast Ohio when he moved our family there in the 1960’s. Here in Wilmington, Delaware I grow them in my tiny garden plot alongside the house.
For many years my father and I were partners in this annual exercise that links me to my ancestors. He coached me at every step of the growing process, following his own father’s traditions. Now I am the custodian of these seeds.
It takes patience to coax the life out of them so that they will germinate but it is a joy. Unlike today’s hybrids, I can’t simply toss them into the ground, sprinkle with water and voila, they sprout. Right now I’m in the third week of anxiously watching them sit moistened with a damp paper towel on my sunny windowsill. I am waiting to see the tiny white tails emerge that signal I can finally start the planting process. This in itself is another exercise in patience. First I tuck the seeds into dirt filled little cups. Then a few weeks later, green sprouts appear. Finally, in May I can plant them in my garden whose southern exposure and location alongside the house’s brick wall mimic the hot, sunny climate they enjoyed in Italy.
I never question whether it’s worth the effort. The connection to past generations is why I undertake this ritual year after year. And, the fact of the matter is that the peppers are delicious. Their fruity taste and delicate thin flesh are unlike anything I can get at the grocery or farmers market. And they are can be prepared in many ways – sliced raw in salads, sautéed with onions on a crusty roll or stuffed with ground meat and tomatoes. We hoard them during the summer harvest and freeze them so we can enjoy them during the winter.
On Sunday, I listened to Seed Savers Exchange founder Diane Ott Whealy talk about that organization’s efforts to preserve our gardening heritage for future generations. She said that seeds and people are linked and that they each have a story. I certainly have mine.