Gardening season starts when you open your first seed catalog in the dead of winter, and it doesn’t end until you’ve dug your last carrot, plucked your final Brussels sprout or eaten your last pickled pepper of the season.
But the rewards of gardening start coming the minute you open that catalog, long before you get to eat anything. The act of planning a garden makes you deeply consider many things, including where and who you are.
In addition to knowing your environment, gardening requires a firm understanding of your culinary needs and habits. As you sort through your seed catalogs, perhaps you’ll be reminded of a long-forgotten childhood treat of summer. And as you plan your garden, remember: It should be tailored to fit into your overall food-getting game plan. That, in turn, depends primarily on the answers to two basic questions: What do you want to eat fresh from the garden? And what do you hope to eat from your garden all year long?
For me, the tomato falls into both categories. I want to be able to run out to the garden on a whim and grab some slicing, salad, cooking or juicing tomatoes whenever I like. 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. Ideally, the latter will be farmer-direct.
Other good things to grow in a kitchen garden are herbs, strawberries, melons, peas, spinach, other greens, and some kind of onion or shallot whose green tops you can also use from time to time.
Most gardens, including mine, are too small to produce enough food to get one through the winter. But in addition to feeding me in summer, my garden does important things for my big picture year-round food plan. For one, it is a lab; a place of chaos and research, where I can play with 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 nobody else seems to grow, like Rose Apple fingerling potatoes and Arledge chile peppers.
And then there are the things I need in quantity, like garlic and shallots, that can be expensive to buy and that I’m a snob about and need to be grown my way. This is the most serious aspect of my garden, and I haven’t paid for garlic since the ’90s.
Whatever your needs and aspirations, now is the time to start scheming and planning, calculating all of your food needs and sources, and curling with a cup of tea around a good seed catalog, which is like a good magazine.
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 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 their chocolate cherry tomato seeds.
Now is the time to start curling with a cup of tea around a good seed catalog, which is like a good magazine.
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 can often lead to failure. So I buy most of my plant starts from the experts at the farmers market. The only plants I start from seed are the experimentals, those unavailable elsewhere, and shallots.
Shallots taste like onions 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.
There are many seed catalogs out there, each with its 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:
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. fedcoseeds.com
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. The catalog offers glossy photos and speedy delivery. johnnyseeds.com
Jung: A new discovery to me with an interesting selection, including the aforementioned Mango Melon, as well as the intriguing “Biggie Chile.” 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. highmowingseeds.com
Seed Savers Exchange: Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds, with a mind-boggling heirloom tomato section and many other seeds too. seedsavers.org
Summer might seem distant, but the days are getting longer. This is time to dig in, prepare a garden to capture some of next year’s free solar energy and plan your upcoming year in food. The payoffs will begin immediately.