How to play the gardening game

  • Ari LeVaux


In his book "Jaguars Ripped my Flesh," Tim Cahill tells us that he "sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people peruse seed catalogs or accounts of classic chess games."

As a seed-catalog peruser, I took offense at first at being lumped in with the chess nerds. But after giving it some thought, I realized that both gardening and chess are strategic disciplines linked to the human journey from slime to the top of the food chain.

This time of year it pays to think many moves ahead: How many quarts of pickles do you want to put up? Which vegetables do you want to store in the freezer? Of course, your garden doesn't need to produce everything. Hitting a farmers' market, coffee in hand, is one of the joys of community living, while patronizing retail stores that support local farmers is not only convenient, it's also an important contribution to the local economy.

I go for a diverse garden that's more broad than deep, that allows me to run outside on a whim and pick all the ingredients I need for a meal. But for long-term storage needs, I rely on some professional help. The only crops I grow in quantity are garlic, because I'm a snob and I can usually grow bigger and better bulbs than what I can buy, and shallots, which are like extra-strong onions and awesome for cooking. They're also ridiculously expensive to buy.

The other crops in my garden are "experimentals," new-fangled crops or obscure heirlooms that haven't become popular enough to buy. Last year I played around with Mango Melon, a small, oblong melon that tastes like an extra-sweet cucumber. They were OK, but kind of neither here nor there, and didn't find a place in my kitchen after the novelty wore off. One experimental I was impressed with, and that I'll be planting again, is a variety of purple carrot called Purple Haze. In addition to their striking dark purple skin and bright orange interiors, the carrots grew large and uniform and had a strong, sweet flavor.

It can be challenging to contain yourself when faced with a seed catalog, because the temptation to order a whole farm's worth of seeds is great. Be wary of buying seeds that need to be started indoors and then transplanted. It may seem like a great savings -- you can get a whole packet of tomato seeds for the price of one baby tomato plant -- but after years of trying to raise my own seedlings, I've decided to leave that to the experts. There are all kinds of hidden costs in gear and supplies, and it's likely your tomato starts will look like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. I get my starts from farmer friends or at the market. My only exceptions are shallots, which I think grow much better from seeds, and some cool-looking tomato, pepper, okra or melon that I really want to try, but don't think anyone will be selling starts of.

We all know there are plenty of seed catalogs out there to choose from, and here are my top three: Johnny's ( is a tight company that's pulling ahead of the pack, thanks to an ambitious breeding and testing program, a catalog loaded with photos and cultivation information, and lightning turnaround. The Fedco catalog ( is also worth a look. It reminds me of a modern day Whole Earth Catalog with whimsical drawings. Seed Savers Exchange ( is dedicated exclusively to the worthy goal of preserving heirloom seed varieties; its tomato selection is especially impressive and intriguing.

Honorable mentions in the crowded field of quality seed companies include High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seeds of Change, Jung's, Territorial, Peaceful Valley, and R.H. Shumway's.

This year I'm going to experiment with Indigo radicchio, Winter Density romaine, Keystone endive, and Purple Pak carrots, all direct-seeded (that is, sown directly into the garden). I'll also be ordering seed for Ambition red shallots and Saffron yellow shallots, which will probably be the only plants I start indoors unless (fat chance) I build a greenhouse.

My seed order may not teach me how to lead an army into battle, and that's OK. This kind of armchair strategizing will help me eat well all summer long, and keep me in shallots through the winter. That's good enough for me.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Placitas, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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