A year or so ago, Mara got curious about the apple seeds that tumbled out of the many Honeycrisps and Pink Ladies we eat around here, wondering whether you could grow them into new apple trees. Apples are not grown from seed, because they do not “breed true” from seed. That is, the seeds of an apple have a different genetic composition than their parent, so that if you grow an apple tree from seed, you will not know what it looks or tastes like until it fruits. For this reason, a farmer coming upon an apple tree grown up wild in his hedgerow will always wait to taste the apple before he chops it down. You never know when the next Granny Smith will emerge. This is in fact how the Granny Smith apple was discovered — growing wild in Australia as the result of a chance hybridization. The discoverer, Maria Ann Smith, had the foresight (and good taste) to cultivate it, which is done not by seed but by cuttings.
Nevertheless, Angela showed Mara how to lay a damp paper towel in a clear-sided glass and then wedge the seed between the glass and paper, so that they could watch it sprout a shoot and a root. All you have to do is remember to keep a little water in the bottom of the glass so that the paper towel keeps wicking it upward to surround the seed with moisture. Unfortunately, several attempts that they had started together failed after one or two true leaves had emerged. Oh well. Kids don’t have much interest in long term projects like that anyway, right?
One day I came home and saw one of Mara’s clear plastic drinking cups on the kitchen window sill with a wad of damp paper towel not very carefully folded inside it but applying enough pressure on a little apple seed in there to keep it moist. I asked Angela and she thought I had done it. Then Mara blithely stated that she did it; she had wanted to try growing an apple tree again. We kept it watered, and it sprouted, first the root, then the shoot with its cotyledons — the starter leaves that are folded up inside the seed. In a few weeks it had true leaves on it and the root was thriving. It lived on the windowsill for months, until we finally transferred it to some good soil in a little pot. It’s out on the deck now, having put on several inches of stem that has turned woody over the summer. She did the same thing — on her own, and by her own initiative — with pear seeds and got several to sprout and grow small pairs of true leaves before they expired in the hot sunny windowsill from dehydration as our busy summer advanced and we neglected to keep an eye on them.
We were a little startled that Mara had done all this all by herself. It’s exactly the kind of self-directed learning we want to encourage in our daughters. I used to work in nurseries and botanical gardens, and had at one time considered making a last ditch to get out of deskwork by being a nurseryman on my own, but it didn’t work out. If Mara or Millie became a plantsman I’d be extra happy — I say ‘extra’ deliberately because I will be happy whatever they do, as long as they are happy in their work.
A while later Mara noticed a sack of old Yukon Gold potatoes that Angela had abandoned in the garage. My roommate Dave used to leave the last bit of milk in his half-gallon carton in the refrigerator and buy a new one, then when you’d ask him how long he was going to leave that older carton there he’s say, “oh, is that mine?” And he wasn’t being cagey. He just didn’t recognize his own carton after a certain amount of time, no doubt something to do with a subconscious fear of rotten milk. I used to tell him he had dairy myopia. Angela has garage myopia. Once she puts something down in the garage, she can never again perceive that item with ocular vision. I jokingly told Mara that those potatoes were “past eatin'” and that we should plant them in the ground. This idea seized hold of her, and she begged me to help her plant them.
I told Mara that these were not the best spuds for that, that nurseries sold “starter potatoes” just for that purpose, but she insisted, since we would just throw them out anyway (she was mistaken in this: I would have let them sit there and grow tentacles just to see how long Angela would continue to not see them. Jeff and I once did this with a potato that Kip left on top of the fridge when we all lived together in the Spoon, and it eventually looked like a green hairy spider, its shoots hanging down the sides of the appliance, before we gave in and asked Kip to put it out of our misery. Not surprisingly, he could not remember having had anything to do with it.)
We took the four wrinkled, knobby spuds outside, scraped some holes for them with a trowel, tossed them in and covered them up. What you’re supposed to do is create a situation in which you can keep covering the plant with more soil as it grows upward. As the plant chases the light upward, it leaves bunches of tubers along the root. I did not have time to make a “potato chimney” (a stack of tires, such as a real man living in a semi-rural area might have lying around, would be perfect for this) so I told Mara not to expect much. It was truly a slap-dash operation.
But the patron saint of plantsmen, if there is one, must have been smiling upon Mara’s latest growing enterprise, for within days great green shoots shot up and unfurled big green leaves. We didn’t have to water them through the spring and most of the summer because the sun didn’t come out until August this year, so mostly we didn’t pay them much attention. But the plants grew vigorously and put out lots of foliage, and during August and September I watered them whenever I watered the pots on the back patio and we could see the potatoes pushing out of the soil. I assumed that what we saw emerging were merely the humps of the originals we had planted, but if I had bothered to look closely I’d have noticed that they were smooth and brown, not green and wrinkled. They were brand new tubers. Still, we didn’t even mound up the soil over them like we should have. I figured it wasn’t really worth doing since we weren’t “really” trying to grow potatoes, it was just one of Mara’s quixotic experiments.
But when the tops died back and it was time to pull up the plants and see what we had, I was shocked. The ground was full of potatoes. A few moderate-sized ones and a lot of little ones, and even a honker. I guess I expected that since we had basically flouted all correct procedure we would get very little return, but I was wrong. Mara harvested a basketful of doughty little spuds, grown by herself. Mara was very pleased, and not at all surprised. I was bowled over and determined that next year we are going to “do it right” and see what golden harvest awaits.