As the newest crop of seed catalogs arrives in the mail, my thoughts turn to next summer’s garden and to the words of Tim Cahill, the adventure writer: “I am a man who sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people peruse seed catalogs or accounts of classic chess games,” Cahill wrote in Jaguars Ripped My Flesh.
As a compulsive peruser of seed catalogs, I think it’s a fair comparison. All three of these pursuits can occur in one’s socks or slippers, over a cup of tea. They all invoke issues of survival, but gardening requires the most integrated of skill sets, combining the strategy and foresight of a chess master with the survivalist’s intimate knowledge of landscape and the ability to adjust on the fly to changing conditions.
Growing a garden is a glorious way of dancing with the forces of nature, with the bees and the flowers and the butterflies, while eating and sniffing and generally digging the scene. It’s a place for whimsy and relaxation, though it’s important to be clear about expectations — especially now, when you have a bunch of seed catalogs spread out before you.
One easy rule of thumb is to rule out any plants that need to be planted inside and in pots. I don’t care if you have a sunny windowsill. Unless you have a real grow space and the proper gear, growing your own starts is a losing proposition. Unless you really know what you are doing, your tomato seedlings will probably be an embarrassment compared to the greenhouse-grown beauties you can purchase at the farmers market.
I’ve got a small stable of growers from whom I buy tomato plants, farmers who grow big specimens of interesting varieties that produce delicious, eclectic crops through the summer. These are not the tomatoes with which I make the sauce that fills my freezer. Those tomatoes I’ll buy months later, also at the farmers market. Because my garden isn’t for filling the freezer. It’s a net for catching some fleeting, lovely moments of summer.
While students of chess and wilderness survival look to history for guidance, readers of seed catalogs tend to look forward, focused on what is new. Pineapple strawberries? Sure. Or we seek out things that are less available on the open market, like radicchio.
The only thing I grow in large enough quantities to store and replant is garlic. The rest of the garden, I plant to eat. The blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and peas are for the frolicking kids to eat, while the grownups appreciate the basil, radicchio and cucumbers. All of these can be ordered from a seed catalog and planted directly without having to be grown inside. Climbing plants like beans should also be ordered, as well as plants for them to climb on, like sunflowers. As soon as the ground can be worked, plant a handful of peas and beans. When they come up, plant the rest, and your sunflowers among them.
I recommend a large bag of basil, to be seeded in every blank spot in the garden. They can be the exception that gets started indoors, and they are much more forgiving than tomatoes are. Or you can sow the seeds outside around the time you transplant tomatoes. For me, that’s about Memorial Day.
Those who take the time to fill their freezers with ready-to-go foods can enjoy meals in winter that practically qualify as fast food. In fact, there was a meal I used to cook in college that made me a minor celebrity on the dorm block that year. I called it PastaPestoPrego, and it leveraged the fact that one needn’t choose between pesto and red sauce, as they go great together. On top of that, this recipe manages to push most any button that a 20-year-old guy might possess, delivering noodles, cheese and quantity.
But it wasn’t just the satisfaction it delivered that made the meal legendary. It was the sheer speed with which I could prepare it. And if the proverbial pesto and Prego are in place at your place, you can too:
Big pot of boiling water
Half an onion, minced
Two garlic cloves, pressed, grated or minced
Cheese, such as Parmesan or Romano
Ground meat (optional)
When the noodles are done to your liking, drain them and toss with olive oil, and then minced garlic. This, right here, is the most important trick you need to know about pasta: The garlic will cook in the hot noodles and the house will smell amazing. Then stir in the cheese and pesto. Finally, toss in the red sauce. Add more grated cheese, if you can, and proceed to eat until it hurts.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food and food politics in New Mexico.