A Great Summer Garden Starts Now


In some towns, people say you're not committed to the place until you buy a burial plot in the cemetery. But where I come from, a single season gardening earns local status.

Gardening season starts when you open your first seed catalog in the dead of winter -- aka, right now -- and it doesn't end until you've dug your last carrot or plucked your final Brussels sprout.  

The rewards start flowing long before you get to eat anything, because the minute you open that seed catalog you can start dreaming. And you get to contemplate some useful questions, like who and where you are. Gardening helps tune you in to many parts of your environment, like rainfall, frost dates, soil type, your neighbors and what they grow.  

Gardening also requires you to understand your culinary needs and habits. Your garden should be tailored to complement your overall food-getting game plan, which depends largely on what you want to eat fresh, and what do you wish to eat all year long.  

The tomato falls into both categories. There are the tomatoes like the Mortgage Lifter red heirlooms and Sun Gold yellow cherries that I run to the garden barefoot and grab for munching, slicing, or cooking. And there is the grab bag mix of tomatoes I process into gallons of salsa, sauce, and ratatouille for storage and year-round consumption. So while my little tomato patch gets me through the summer, I rely on bulk-purchased tomatoes to get me through the winter. Ideally, these purchases will be farmer-direct at the market, in their barn, in my driveway, in some parking lot, or other such exiting place. 

Other crops worth growing in a kitchen garden are herbs, strawberries, melons, peas, spinach, other greens, and some kind of onion or shallot, the green tops of which you can also use from time to time.  

Most gardens, including mine, are too small to produce enough food to get me through the winter. But in addition to feeding me in summer, my garden contributes three important elements to my big-picture food plan. First, it's a lab, a place of chaos and research where I can play with new techniques (like letting my parsley re-seed itself) and experiment with varieties I've never tried (like Moon and Stars watermelon).

My garden is also a last resort for things I know I like, but for which there is no local source, like Rose Apple fingerling potatoes and Arledge chile peppers. And if I want to pluck fresh Brussels sprouts off the stalk in December I have to grow them myself.  

And then there is my garlic and shallots, which I need in major quantity, are expensive to buy, and I'm a snob about the way they're grown. This is the most serious side of my garden. I haven't paid for garlic since the 1990s. I'm finally getting the hang of shallots.  

Whatever your needs and aspirations, now is the time to start scheming, planning, and calculating all of your food needs and sources, and curling with a cup of tea around a good seed catalog with a pen close by.  

As you flip through the pages you may be confronted with intriguing plants you've never heard of but may want to experiment with. My Jung Seeds catalog, for example, from Randolph, Wisc., contains a native American heirloom called Mango Melon (aka Vine Peach), whose "vigorous, spreading, very productive vines" make "white-fleshed fruits with the flavor and texture of a mango." Uh, ok. I'll try that. And while I'm at it I'll order some of their chocolate cherry tomato seeds.

But beware of plants that need be started from seed in pots and then transplanted -- like those chocolate cherry tomatoes. Seedlings take extra skill and consistent attention, and the attempt often fails. So I buy most of my plant starts from the pros, at the nursery or at the farmers market. The only plants I start from seed are the experimentals, those unavailable elsewhere, and shallots.  

Shallots taste like onion but pack more flavor per pound. Since I must have them, and they're too expensive to buy in bulk, I grow my shallots and buy my onions. Most people grow shallots from "sets," little mini-shallots that grow into bigger shallots, but you get a much better yield growing shallots from seed. Like onions, shallot seeds should be started indoors by early March, which means you need to order them in February.  

There are many seed catalogs out there, each with their own personality, specialty, informational wisdom and selection of gear and supplies. Most seed companies post online catalogs, but I recommend you request a hard copy--the better to spill coffee and jot notes on and leave around the house for when you have a moment to daydream of summer.  

Some of my favorite seed catalogs are: 

  • Jung Seeds. A new discovery to me with an interesting selection, including the aforementioned Mango Melon, as well as the intriguing "Biggie Chile." 
  • Johnny's Seeds. Perhaps the tightest ship in the seed business, Johnny's is the go-to supplier for many commercial growers and gardeners alike. Their catalog offers glossy photos, and has the fastest turnaround time in the business.  
  • Fedco. The beautifully illustrated and whimsical catalog of this cooperative seed and garden supply organization is slightly reminiscent of the Whole Earth Catalog, offering, in addition to seeds, networking information, news, opinion, and notable quotes.  
  • High Mowing Seeds. A mission-driven company with high standards and small selection of hearty, Vermont-tested seeds. 
  • Seed Savers Exchange. A non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Mindboggling heirloom tomato selection, and many other seeds, too.

When in doubt, go with a catalog from a company located in a region similar to yours. That means Seeds of Change in the Southwest, Territorial or Peaceful Valley on the West Coast, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in the South, and so on.  

Summer might seem light years distant, but the days are already getting longer. This good news brings responsibility.  

It's time to dig in, if not into the frozen ground then into a seed catalog. It's time to plan the upcoming year in food, and the payoffs will begin long before the groundhog even hits the snooze button. 

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