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Know the West

Thinking green in the midst of winter


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

The rewards of gardening begin the minute you open that catalog -- long before you get to eat anything. To plan a garden you have to deeply consider many things, including where and who you are.

As you pore over seed catalogs, perhaps you'll feel nostalgic for the long-forgotten childhood treats of summer. But as you plan your garden, remember that it has to fit into your overall food-getting game plan. And that plan depends primarily on the answers to two questions: What do you want to eat fresh from your garden? And what do you hope to eat the rest of the year?

For me, the tomato falls into both categories. I want to be able to go into my garden on a whim and grab some slicing, salad, cooking or juicing tomatoes. But I also need to make gallons of salsa, tomato sauce and oven 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.

No matter the size of my garden, it always does three important things: First, it's a lab where I can experiment with techniques, like letting my parsley re-seed itself, and try varieties I've never tried, like Moon and Stars watermelon. Second, my garden is a last resort for things I like but nobody else seems to grow, like Rose Apple fingerling potatoes and Arledge chile peppers. Then there are the things I use in quantity, like garlic and shallots, that can be expensive to buy, and that I'm a snob about: They simply have to be grown my way.  

But whatever your needs and aspirations, now is the time to start scheming and planning, calculating all of your food needs and sources. Curl up with a cup of tea and a good seed catalog. It's like reading a good magazine, only better. 

As you flip through the pages, you may see intriguing plants you've never heard of, but might want to experiment with. My Jung catalog, for example, from Randolph, Wis., 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 those chocolate cherry tomato seeds.

But beware of plants that need be started from seed in pots and then transplanted -- like those chocolate cherries. Seedlings take extra skill and consistent attention, and the attempt to transplant them can often end in failure. I buy most of my plant starts from the experts at the farmers' market. The only plants I start from seed are the experimental plants, those unavailable elsewhere, and shallots. 

Shallots taste like onion but pack more flavor per pound. Since 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 need to be started indoors by early March, which means you need to order them in February.

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

Some of my favorite seed catalogs:

  • 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. www.fedcoseeds.com.
  • Johnny's Seeds -- Johnny's is the go-to supplier for commercial growers and gardeners alike. Their catalog offers glossy photos and speedy delivery. www.johnnyseeds.com.
  • Jungs -- a new discovery to me with an interesting selection, including the intriguing "Biggie Chile." www.jungseed.com.
  • High Mowing -- an up-and-coming Vermont-based company with high ethical standards and great seeds. Like Fedco, High Mowing is driven as much by mission as by profit. www.highmowingseeds.com.
  • Seed Savers Exchange -- a nonprofit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds, with a mind-boggling heirloom tomato section, and many other seeds too. www.seedsavers.org.

The list goes on to include Territorial Seeds, Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley… Summer might seem light-years away from us right now, but the days are already getting longer. This is the time to dig in mentally to plan your upcoming year in food. The payoffs bloom immediately.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He grows a lot of his own in Missoula, Montana.