The original human beings were hunters and gatherers, and more recently, farmers. We still eat plants and animals, which are still made from sun, rain, earth and air. But today, many humans also regularly eat things that hardly resemble plants or animals at all, much less their elemental precursors. Nonetheless, certain earthly desires remain hard-wired. The gardening instinct, for example, can be as primal as following a path through the woods, or saving someone’s life, or even you-know-what. It feels good to get food by getting physical with the earth.
For some, the garden urge is more like a summertime romance than a long-term commitment. When the weather’s warm, it feels like the thing to do. But after a fling of stir-fry, salads, and zucchini bread, the food and memories quickly fade into autumn. And before you know it, you’re back at the store, standing in line and paying for it.
For others, gardening is a year-round endeavor, and I am one of them. Long after the plants are gone, we’re still munching away, tapping into that dirty elemental satisfaction. But this isn’t just about supporting the inner cave-child. It’s about flavor, and the all-around culinary quality of life that comes from knowing the story of your food. I like to taste that story every day.
Thus, when I plan my garden, I’m planning a whole year’s worth of eating. Last night for example, in mid-March, I feasted. First I prepared the pan with chopped bacon and grapeseed oil, in which I fried shallots, garlic, and pickled hot peppers—all from the garden. Then I added a jar of tarragon tomato sauce—made from homegrown sungold cherry tomatoes—to the pan, and I served it over pasta that was pre-dressed with minced garlic, olive oil and homemade pesto.
So, I’m not exactly homesteading, but all I bought for that meal was bacon, oil and pasta (and tarragon, last summer, at the farmer’s market).
My buddy Pathos is one of those farmer philosophers. No armchair philosopher, Pathos likes to think until it hurts, and can spout a litany of ethical reasons why it’s better to eat year-round from your home ground than to ship in your food. He’s no armchair farmer, either. Pathos runs a vegetable business on a borrowed piece of ground, selling winter storage veggies. You pay him $250 in the springtime, and at harvest time he gives you 400 pounds of potatoes, onions, carrots, kale, garlic, winter squash, beets, corn, and other storable crops. His customers have freezers, root cellars, and various ways of hoarding the goods all winter.
Even if you don’t care about ethics, if you just run the cold numbers you will see that economically, it makes sense to buy locally in bulk in the summer, when prices are low and shipping is zero.
But if you want to get physical with the earth, it’s not too late to plant most of these crops yourself. You can sow carrot and beet seeds now; potatoes around Mother’s Day; corn at the end of May. Winter squash can be started indoors in early May, or direct-seeded soon after. Broccoli and kale, which can be started all spring, will store fabulously, blanched and frozen. The trick is growing enough that you don’t gobble it all up fresh.
While some crops can and should be direct-seeded, many, especially here in the frozen north, will do much better if started indoors. These include broccoli, kale, basil, squash, and onions and shallots (which you can also buy as bulbs). Others, meanwhile, like tomatoes, peppers and onions, should definitely be started inside. This adds a major step to the gardening process, and can be prohibitively overwhelming if you are just starting out, or don’t have enough time, or space.
So I recommend buying seedlings at the farmer’s market. You get healthy plants, raised by pros. And few scenes can compare to the ambience of a late-spring farmer’s market, with the air smelling of lilacs, the sunglasses, smiles, tank tops, and the intoxicating optimism of impending summer. You bring home some potted seedlings, dig up your garden in the afternoon, plant the seedlings in the cool of evening, and start dreaming about tomato sauce, pickled peppers and pesto.
If space is limited, planting these winter-storage crops might be at the expense of your summertime salad bowl. But if you are crafty enough, you can have it all. Squeeze lettuce plants around your broccoli or onions. Maybe go light on zucchini—that’s what neighbors are for.
The various storage techniques, such as canning, freezing, and cold storage, require some explaining. I’ll do so at harvest time—but I’m no substitute for a good reference book, like Stocking Up, from Rodale Press. And don’t forget: the garden is but one factor in the year-round food equation. There are still deer to hunt, mushrooms and berries to pick, and fish to smoke. And thus, Chef Boy Ari, armchair caveman, eats for another year.