The garden train is leaving the station

Ari LeVaux

Photo by Ari LeVaux
Photo by Ari LeVaux

Soon after learning that I was less than nine months away from becoming a first-time father, I was blindsided by an unexpected sense of déjà vu. The baby was coming, whether or not the room was painted, and that feeling of being hitched to a biological clock that stops for no one is a feeling I feel every winter around this time. The days get noticeably longer, my garden stares me down from its bed, and I realize I better get off my but and order seeds.
If you have a garden, it’s probably staring you down too, and you would be advised to pay it a little mind, at least for a moment, and make some kind of plan. Because when spring arrives, like that baby, you’ll want to be prepared.
It may seem obsessive to fret about one’s garden in the middle of winter. Indeed, it is obsessive. But as a wise person once observed, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching. Obsession has its benefits.
Suppose, for example, that you wish to grow shallots, and start them indoors, because that is undeniably the best way to do it. Shallot seeds should be started by end of March at the latest. Unless you can find shallot seeds at your local store--and good luck with that--you will have to order those seeds from a seed company. And even if you order your shallots from Johnny’s, which has the fastest turnaround in the business, the window is closing.
For some reason, most people plant little shallot bulbs, called “sets,” instead of growing them from seed. Each little bulb grows into a cluster of bulbs, kind of like garlic, but this happens to be a horribly inefficient way of growing shallots.
Browsing online I see I can get 10 sets, or bulbs, for $10.95, and these will yield about 80 to100 small shallots. Or, I can buy a packet of 250 seeds for $5. Shallots planted from seed can grow much bigger than from sets, especially if you follow my special technique.
Scatter the seeds in an open tray of potting soil, and keep them wet as they germinate and grow, in the greenhouse or by the window. When the shoots get to about four inches tall, the tray will resemble a lawn in need of a mow, so give it a haircut down to two inches with scissors. This will make the shoots increase their girth, which will lead to bigger shallot bulbs. Transplant into the garden after the frost is done, at least six inches apart.
I don’t grow shallots anymore, because I don’t start plants indoors anymore. I don’t have a greenhouse, and the kids, and their explosive messmaking abilities, have made it ill-advised to keep trays of fragile plants by the window.
But for those with the resources and ambition to start their garden indoors, the clock is ticking.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, for example, can be started ASAP, as can kale and other hearty greens that will be transplanted to the garden as soon as the ground can be worked.
I actually don’t miss doing this, however. Of all of the things that have sent my garden into a tailspin in past years, starting seeds indoors is near the top of the list. Keeping the seedlings alive is an ordeal. The floor gets wet. Potting soil is all over the house. And when farmers market starts, and real growers bring their young plants to sell, I realize just how lame my own plants are. But since I’ve invested so much in my seedlings, I plant them anyway, to the detriment of the garden.
As it is, now I just purchase beautiful plant starts at market, and it’s a beautiful thing.
My sabbatical from starting plants indoors brings relief this time each winter. The garden is still coming, but isn’t bearing down on me like a tailgater.
This has inspired me to look for other ways to simplify the garden.
“What is the point of growing potatoes?” I asked myself.
I can’t grow a potato that tastes any better than what I can get from local farmers, and there isn’t any real added convenience to having potatoes readily available in the back yard. When you add up the time and labor and supplies, I’m not saving any money growing potatoes, and they take up a lot of space, and the same goes for many other crops (though not shallots, which are ridiculously expensive, as if all the farmers are planting those stupid little bulb sets instead of seeds).
Bottom line: with the local vegetable farmers so busy and talented, there is little that’s truly worth growing at home. This realization has allowed me to focus exclusively on the plants that absolutely need to be in my garden. The most obvious candidates are the necessary plants that farmers aren’t growing, like the colorful and nutritiously bitter array of Italian chicory plants that we love.
I order the seeds from Italy via Gourmet Seeds, which lists four categories of chicory, including the long-stemmed Catalogna, the compact head and Radicchio varieties, the bushy, leafy varieties, and “other” - a category that includes Belgian endive and chicory root, which is planted in fall and harvested throughout the winter. (Note to self.)
Chicory plants, which also include dandelion, are so hardy you can basically throw the seeds on the melting snow, and something will happen. I like to plant chicory in the garlic patch, which will be harvested in July. After the garlic is gone the chicory takes over. It will re-seed itself if you let it, and spread into an edible ground cover over the years. You can then pull it in spots, here and there, and plant other things, like the foods in your culinary arsenal that you want to be able to run out and grab, at a moment’s notice.
Such as leafy herbs like parsley and basil, as they augment so much of what is fresh in summer. A leaf of basil in a glass of lemonade, or on a tomato slice, or some parsley in the morning omelet.
Obviously, everyone needs a tomato plant or two, and a couple of melons. And some peas and berries for the kids to pick. And some corn and sunflowers for the beans to climb. And the cucumbers. And that should do it.
And, I’ll just leave a space reserved for plants that farmers will seduce me with at market in late May.
And what the heck, I’ll scatter some shallot seeds too, straight into the ground, when the time comes, along with my chicory seeds, which I really must order.