Ok, the holiday season is DONE! But wait, I get a quick gripe in before we get down to business.
Winter is for reflection, for going deep. The surface is dead, and we move slowly, thinking of the roots of things. The Miles River is crystal clear; crabs are sleeping under the mud. Winter is for sorting and repairing; preparing for the rush of spring. Stack the washed planting pots according to size, throw out broken ones, tighten handles, sharpen blades. Prune now, reflecting on the perfect shape of the tree, the rose, the grape. Think about your life and your people. Think about your God.
Blam! No, you have to think about reassuring everyone that they are on your holiday list. Making presents, buying things, wrapping, mailing, giving parties, going to parties. Who has time to go deep?
Look, my tradition is Christmas, which is a pagan holiday dressed in Christian clothing to entice the heathen. My ancestors burned a yule log in the cold winter dark in faith that the sun would finally return. They decked the halls with evergreens to remind themselves that spring would eventually come, for some of them. It had nothing to do with Christ. Matter of fact, it can actually become Antichristmas, with the hideous commercialism today.
Well, things are what you make of them- the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose, and we can create moments of love and reverence in our families, even on a pagan feast day. But keep Christ close.
OK, I feel better. So now, whether you are buying seeds or not, is a great time to relax with a seed catalog. Everybody who ever bought a seed gets Gurney’s, Burpee’s, Henry Fields’, Park’s, etc. Then perhaps also White Flower Farm, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure, etc. It blurs. Oh, I have my favorites- the wonderful Baker Creek Seeds, my pen pal Richo Cech’s Horizon Herb Farm. His daughters illustrate the catalog with line drawings and cartoons, and he peppers it with anecdotes and medicinal information. Great read.
But I feel bad about all the catalogs that get printed for me, to the extent that I sometimes take the time to ask them to stop sending catalogs I never buy from. And I buy less and less, as I save more and more. The internet is a smorgasbord of delightful, clickable seed catalogs. Tomato Grower’s Supply stocks a fantastic array of tomato and pepper seeds. Why even read a paper catalog? Save a tree! But it is delicious, lying comfortably on a sofa by the wood stove imagining the idealized version of my garden, the delicious fruits and vegetables, the happy eaters all around. Go ahead, savor it. Fall asleep with a seed catalog on your chest.
Well, ok now. Unfortunately most of those nice little catalogs have been bought up by one big evil company. Yup, Monsanto. I smell brimstone, as Chavez would say….( If you want some comprehensive information about Monsanto and its quest to own all the seeds, Organic Seed Alliance is a good place to start, thanks to my noble colleague John Navazio, breeder of the famous Purple Dragon carrot.) Seed catalogs are educational though. After a while you will recognize the old varieties, like Detroit Red beets, Silver Queen corn, Danvers Half-long carrots, Cherry Belle radishes, Wando peas, Roma tomatoes; open-pollinated varieties that haven’t been genetically modified, hybridized, etc. These can be bought cheaply everywhere and if you like them in most cases you can save seed from them without too much trouble. Hybrids are fine- often quite vigorous and productive, and a good choice for a beginning. Buying seeds from catalogs is fun, convenient, and allows you to experiment with which varieties you want to grow. It can bring great diversity into your seed collection. (Oh brother, you should see mine…) It’s just that if you want to be self-sufficient, you will want to save seeds that will come true (reproduce the same plant) from your garden every year. This has the added bonus that your plants will adapt to your particular garden over the years, and you will have a larger number of seeds to trade or share. (We will discuss seed saving this summer.) There are great varieties you can try that great gardeners have been saving for hundreds of years just because they are delicious, hardy, productive, or even just odd. That’s the fuss about heirlooms. Take Yellow Brandywine; a huge Pennsylvania Dutch yellow heirloom tomato grown sparingly on a giant plant with potato-like leaves; a big blob of glowing yellow play-doh in the dark green forest. One huge tomato makes a salad; the seed cavities are small, and the color is more orangey inside, so that the bowl lights up with the firm orange-yellow pieces that have a sort of apricot/tomato sweetness. Not too acid, but never bland. I drool as I write. One fat slice with onion and basil, a drizzle of olive oil, a scratch of salt and pepper…Bob’s Big Boy Hybrid just can’t compete. Sorry.
What varieties should you set your heart on? Depends on where you live, what your garden is like, what you want to eat and whether you will can. What is your zone? Most catalogs explain zones. I am lucky to be in zone 7 because so much grows here, but then, so do weeds and bugs. Every zone has its ups and downs. It’s a great idea to contact your agricultural cooperative extension to get a list of varieties that grow well in your area. I have found a lot of information on the internet about frost dates and germination times as well. Some varieties need a longer growing season than I have, like my Peruvian Aji Rojo, which just means red spicy pepper. Such a cute little pepper, about the size of a sparrow’s beak, but powerful! I got it from a friend in Yarinacocha. The parent plant was 4 years old. If I plant them in February I am lucky to get a ripe pepper by November. Luckily I have a greenhouse, albeit wood heated. I have trouble with plants that grow well in cooler areas. Celery, for example. My garden gets hot and it is hard to keep the constant moisture celery likes. Broccoli does best in the fall for me, because in spring if the row covers aren’t perfect the heads are full of green caterpillars. In fall it’s the timing. I have to bring the seedlings to the garden after the harlequin beetles are gone, but I have to protect them from the heat as well, and since I have to seed them in August this can be tricky. But I really love broccoli, so I finally figured out that all I have to do is get about 8 good plants in the greenhouse and we will eat sweet green sideshoots of broccoli all winter and into early spring, lightly steamed and kissed with butter, as long as I keep them picked so they don’t go to flowering.
But there are some plants that just rock some years and other years you just have to be philosophical. For example, watermelon is a Kalahari plant, brought to this country by enslaved Africans. When my mother and I were in Botswana, I found a small, wild, watermelon-looking plant. The River bushman guide told me it was a Tsamma melon. These melons are not sweet but are full of water. In the rainy season, the rains pour down onto the Kalahari desert, which is a big sand deposit blown in from the Indian Ocean. The watermelons sprout and flourish. Then the rains stop, the water soaks away through the sand, and the place dries up to a crisp. But the bushmen know that if the rains were good, they can still cross the desert, because the Tsamma melons are out there, vines and leaves dried to dust, but fruits still full of water. Our other guide told us he and his friends had found a domestic watermelon in the bushveldt, which is where the elephants hang out. Apparently an elephant had raided a village garden, and the seeds in his dung had grown happily in the peri-Kalahari bushveldt. So, why include this story? When our summers behave normally- wet spring, dry July and August, my heirloom Moon and Stars vines keep our refrigerators full to bursting with their cold, sweet, delicious, oddly speckled watermelons. Last year we had a dry spring and a wet August, and Moon and Stars petered out as the vines fell to a fungal blight. Orangeglo, which I was just trying for the first time, gave me 3 small deformed melons- so delicious I may try them again.
Yes, watermelon dreams are perfect for January.