The Gardening Report: Sowing the seeds
It’s been a winter of here-we-go-again, as one storm after another parades up the East Coast, each leaving its own blanket of snow, however thick, thin or icy. It’s hard to believe that all that snow has actually been quite good for our gardens, but it has. The snow cover acts as a protective mulch in many ways, from simply preventing other mulches such as wood chips and the precious soil itself from blowing away in the wind, to insulating the ground from a constant cycle of freezing and thawing that can heave some plants out of the soil, or otherwise damage their roots. Constant freezing and thawing also can rot away the roots of some plants. I have been told by a nursery owner on Cape Ann in Massachusetts that this is probably why I can’t successfully grow lupines and foxgloves on Block Island. There’s usually just too much freezing and thawing here.
The prolonged periods of cold that also have marked this season continue to make spring seem oh-so-far-away, but we should appreciate them, too. While I may lament that I can’t go out to my garden to dig up leeks for a winter’s meal of a simple peasant soup or gourmet tart, the cold may be killing some of the vermin out there.
It’s truly hard also to wrap one’s head around the fact that in a short two to four weeks, we will be planting our peas. It’s desirable to plant them mid-March, making it a St. Patrick’s Day tradition in our family, and it’s crucial to do so by April 1. Planted any later, the peas will shrivel and wilt in the late June heat, before they have even been harvested.
And we would dearly hate to lose that pea harvest. There’s just no way to get a fresher, bursting-with-sugars, delicious taste of peas than by growing them oneself. We plant a lot of them and blanche them before freezing in gallon-sized bags, pulling out whatever amount we need for any given dish: a simple indulgence in winter.
Whether eaten fresh or fresh-frozen, peas have another practical use in the garden. Peas can be grown as a “cover crop,” meaning something planted when the bed would otherwise lie fallow, and capable of producing something of value to the dirt. In the case of peas: they fix nitrogen in the soil, making it more available to the plants that will grow there after them. Another reason to grow a lot of them.
Most vegetable gardeners already have put in their seed orders, especially those who plant seeds inside. The catalogs started arriving around Christmas, and so there’s been plenty of time to pore over them while we pretend to ourselves that, really, Homo sapiens do hibernate in the winter. One of the distinct advantages of starting one’s own seed is not that of saving money at a local nursery. Assuming the space is available, there are still grow lights, starting soil and that pesky Block Island electricity bill to contend with.
However, what it does give you is the ability to grow a greater variety of vegetable plants. We’ve gotten used to our produce being freshly available year-round, but in order to get those vegetables safely to market from around the globe, plant breeders have favored longevity and looks over taste, and so many of the more delicate (or just ugly) varieties have virtually disappeared. This is a trend that has started to reverse itself as more consumers strive to “eat locally,” shopping at farmers’ markets and participating in CSAs (community supported agriculture). “Heirloom” vegetables, those old varieties of vegetables that grow “true to seed,” are becoming a trend of their own, and while many of these varieties lack looks, they make up for it on the flavor side.
Another advantage of starting your own vegetables from seed is that you can avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Proponents of GMO seeds will argue that man has been tinkering with the genetic make-up of plants through hybridization for eons, quickly glossing over the fact that these new genetic combinations would never and could never occur naturally. Fish and tomatoes just will not mate outside of a test-tube. What is even more alarming is that, in defiance of the age-old practice of farmers around the world saving a portion of their harvest for the seeds to grow the following season, GMO seeds are patented by the companies who supply them and farmers (or anyone else for that matter) are forbidden to save the seeds for subsequent planting.
There can be other evils lurking at the nursery also. They may be using seeds that have been pre-treated with some pretty nasty pesticides, such as those in the class of neonics. These chemicals will infiltrate the plant and its pollen – indeed that is their job, but as these pesticides may kill some bad bugs, they also will kill the good ones. There are many who are implicating these chemicals for playing a large part in the die-offs of honeybee colonies (colony collapse disorder), and countries around the world are moving to ban their use.
Most gardeners have, over the years, no doubt discovered their favorite sources for seeds and most have already placed their orders for the spring. If you are new to this gardening sport though, here are a few suggestions. While these seed suppliers do have a strong internet presence, many gardeners prefer a paper catalog –one to pore over and make notes in the margins, and many of these outfits are happy to mail you a copy.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine (www.johnnyseeds.com) offers a wide variety and is popular with gardeners and farmers as well. Of course, it has the usual collections of flowers, vegetables and herbs, but if you wish to plant a field of sorghum or millet or a winter cover-crop such as rye, this is the place to go.
Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomatoes.com) is not actually totally tomatoes. It does have practically any variety of tomato one would want and is particularly good at identifying which varieties are resistant to some of the diseases that plague them. It also offers an extensive array of pepper varieties, and connoisseurs of either or both types of vegetables will feel as if they’ve gone to heaven.
One disadvantage of buying seeds is that often they come in quantities that you just don’t need. The Sample Seed Shop (www.sampleseeds.com) lets one buy in small quantities, and most seed packets contain about 30 seeds and cost around $1.50 each. The Seed Shop appears to have a large variety of flowers, vegetables and herbs. Per its website, it also appears to have a sense of humor and occasional technical difficulties.
Any food-related research must involve the chat room Chowhound, so I wanted to know what gardening ‘hounds had to say about the ultimate kitchen garden and, of course, where to buy seeds. One suggestion (that I liked very much) was Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). Its website claims to have the largest seed catalog in the world with 1,600 varieties of heirloom seeds. There are more than 100 varieties of winter squash alone. This year Baker Creek is debuting “The Explorer Series,” a collection of traditional seeds from around the world, collected by “Plant Explorer” Joseph Simcox. While the items available are limited, it will be exciting to see how this endeavor will expand in the future, as funds from the sale of these seeds will go into more exploration.
And remember: “It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the Spring, who reaps a harvest in the Autumn.” – B.C. Forbes