Food for Thought
Breaking frozen ground on a spring garden
My baby mama spends about $5,000 a year on salad makings: lettuce, escarole, radicchio, kale, celery and parsley, as well as olive oil, cider vinegar, soy sauce and whatever we run out of from the root cellar. So far we’re good on garlic, almost out of carrots, out of onions, and our beets sucked last year, so she buys those, too.
I’m not complaining. I’d much rather she spent that money on salad than, say, booze or crack—especially since she’s nursing our little guy. Nonetheless, the price tag on her salad habit gives a sense of urgency to my gardening. Any offset I can provide to the financial drain of her salad bowl gets me very excited. Gone are the carefree days of playing in the dirt. I’m still just a gardener, but I take it as seriously as a farmer.
My first lettuce crop, transplanted from the clutches of winter, is 2 inches tall in the window, and I’ve already ordered more seeds. Still, I feel the clock ticking and a faint nervousness that I’m forgetting to do something. In the High Desert mountains where we live, the growing season between hard frosts is a moving target.
Barely past the solstice, the days are only inching longer; soon the change will become dramatic. My neighbor, the old hippie farmer who lives in a mud house, has a weather station that tracks the length of the days. Solstice, the shortest day, was eight hours and 26 minutes. At about 10 hours of sunlight, stuff really starts to grow, he told me recently as he fretted over his imminent seed order. A lot of the places he likes to order from run out early, he added.
That may be true, but the good news is never in history have pickings been as diverse and accessible to backyard farmers. If anything, the options are overwhelming.
I feel the clock ticking and a faint nervousness that I’m forgetting to do something. In the High Desert mountains where we live, the growing season between hard frosts is a moving target.
Ordering seeds is an endeavor where caution, like the seeds themselves, can be safely thrown to the wind. Few purchases are more forgiving. A packet costs less than a beer, and the contents can change your life. The worst that can happen is nothing. More likely, if you keep those plants alive and pay attention to what happens, you’ll learn something about what grows well in your home ground.
Last summer, one of my plots became something of a seed ecosystem. It began the year as a garlic patch, which was planted the prior fall. As the garlic came up in the spring I observed, as I do every spring, how much unused soil there is between garlic plants—36 square inches if you space them 6 inches apart.
Last spring, however, I was prepared, having ordered several kinds of seed to sow in the spaces between. When the garlic plants were about 8 inches tall, I hurled seed by the handful.
The only real order to this planting was that I devoted half the patch to carrots. Because of their lush, shady foliage, I envisioned the carrots shading the ground, reducing water lost to evaporation and encouraging the humid, microbially active soil that’s key to healthy crops. And because carrots grow straight down, I figured they wouldn’t compete with the garlic bulbs underground.
I got packets of colorful “purple haze” and “deep purple” carrots because I’m a sucker for the sharp contrast between bright orange and purple, and because both varieties are tasty, crispy and big. I also planted some mild white carrots and some tapered orange specimens called Hercules.
I scattered the other seeds randomly—lettuce, escarole, radicchio, broccoli, corn, peas, cilantro and spinach seeds—just to see what would happen. These plants inherited the full sun when we dug out the garlic in July. The seedy understory developed a canopy, and we proceeded to harvest many salads’ worth of leaves.
But the carrots stole the show. As promised in the catalog I ordered them from, the Hercules were indeed “broad shouldered.” Even the two-pounders were perfectly sweet.
Some of the leafy plants went to seed at the end of the summer and, right before it got really cold, some baby lettuce, escarole and cilantro plants sprouted. I dug them up and put them in seedling trays by a south-facing window. They’re growing so well that now I’m scheming ways to harvest even more sunlight through the windows. Every snagged photon is money in the bank when my sweet pea reaches for her salad spinner. And when daylight hits 10 hours, I’ll start hurling my seeds at the garlic patch all over again.
Who you order from depends most on where you are and what you want to grow. My default is Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) for its selection, photos, shipping speed, cultivation information and customer service. I also like FedCo (fedcoseeds.com) for overall coolness factor, most whimsical catalog, rambling honesty and a fantastic selection of heirlooms. Interestingly, both of those are from Maine. But there are so many other great seed outfits that it’s almost unfair to start naming names. Since I did, here are a few more: High Mowing (highmowingseeds.com), Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), Peaceful Valley (groworganic.com), J.W. Jung (jungseed.com) and Territorial (territorialseed.com). The old hippie likes Gourmet Seed (gourmetseed.com), Totally Tomatoes (totallytomato.com) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (southernexposure.com).