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Flash in the Pan

Why I’m not ordering seeds this year


The pioneer archetype looms large in the collective unconscious of Western mythology. Strong, independent, resourceful, and largely fictional, the heroic frontiersman can bake bread over a campfire in the blowing snow, deliver a calf at midnight, mend fence all day, and then ride home into the sunset. 

Yet while one pioneer tended the herd, you can bet that another was tending the garden, making applesauce, shelling peas, and raising hens—all just as heroic as bouncing around on some horse. Indeed, the garden is every inch the elemental battleground as a forest or a cattle range. You’re out there, exposed to the elements, growing enough food to survive the winter.

In my personal, romanticized version of this myth, vertical integration is key. Bucking a dead tree into firewood, for example, is good, but doing so with a homemade ax is better, because the more you do yourself, the better.

For me, a key step toward living the dream has for many years been the wintertime rite of ordering seeds. I get cozy in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a stack of catalogs, dreaming of summer. And these are hardly idle dreams. They are grounded in the reality that each passing day will indeed lead us toward spring. By ordering seeds, I’m investing in that reality.

Alas, as careless sex can lead to a lasting commitment in the form of a child, my carefree romps among the seed catalogs inevitably burden me with little green life forms to care for, and unfortunately, I suck at it.

Cultivating starts is like curling—that odd north country sport with players who vigorously sweep the ice in front of an enormous piece of granite gliding across it. If the rock loses momentum, no amount of sweeping will get it going again.

So too in the greenhouse, where any number of circumstances can cause the little plants to get stressed, which will set them back days, weeks, months, or forever. Too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dim—any of these circumstances can hurt plants, and once they lose their momentum, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. With a tricky, unreliable growing season like ours, a tomato that’s behind the ball when planted, or gets planted late, might be too small to bear good fruit when summer hits. Maybe you’ll get a few tomatoes, but not what you need to survive the winter.

Even a B+ amounts to a failing grade when it comes to growing seedlings; it’s not enough just to be good. If you want to rule in August, you need a perfect March. Given my track record, I’m not going to order seeds this year.

Last year was typical for me. My poor seedlings lived like orphans bouncing around foster homes. They started in the basement under grow lights, were moved in front of a big window when the days were long enough, and once in a while the trays spent an afternoon outside for some fresh air. Finally they went to the greenhouse, where cold nights, hot days, and erratic watering put the starts in survival mode. They survived but they did not thrive—a condition exacerbated last year by surprisingly lame potting soil. (I know, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools, but the reality is that even store-bought dirt can suck. The stuff I got was like filtered debris from the landfill.)

Alas, no matter how committed I am to my seedlings, they are rarely worth planting, and the enterprise becomes an exercise in futility. And when the farmers’ market opens in spring, I come face-to-face with what happens when starts grow up in stable homes. It’s humiliating.

On paper, it makes little financial sense to buy starts at the market where one plant might cost more than a whole packet of seeds. I’ve fallen prey to this logic for years. The worst part is when, out of stubbornness, I plant my lame starts anyway, which effectively dooms my garden for the year. No more!

This year I’m going to restrain my pioneering impulses and buy my starts from the experts.

In plugging into my local economy this way, I’m embracing my community, and the special relationship that can develop between the backyard gardener and the greenhouse whiz.

Imagine being a farmer and knowing that all across town, people have planted the starts you raised. It’s like they’re raising your children.

“You get updates all summer long,” says Josh Slotnick of Clark Fork Organics. “They’ll say things like,  ‘That Sungold tomato plant you sold us, oh my god, they taste like candy!’”

So this year, instead of wasting time and money on an idealistic exercise in futility, I’m going to make my garden into the best home possible for the starts I bring home from the market. 

Specifically, I’m going to focus on irrigation. Rather than studying the Fedco or Johnny’s seed catalogs, I’ll be thumbing through the Peaceful Valley Farm Supply catalog, scheming about the drip irrigation system I’m installing this May—right before I plant someone else’s tomatoes.

Ask Ari: A dog’s puzzling taste for turf

Q: To the Artist Formerly Known as Chef Boy Ari,

My dog is hooked on grass. Every time I let him outside to do his “business” he heads directly for any tuft of grass sticking out of the snow and goes to town. Does he know something I don’t? Can I eat grass too?


I Don’t Know What’s Going On

A: The conventional wisdom, IDKWGO, is that dogs eat grass when they “want” to puke. This theory, accepted without question by many, is based on the fact that many dogs do, in fact, puke after they eat grass. Thus, it is thought, the dog is aware that his or her tummy is upset, and eats the grass in order to vomit out whatever the trouble is. It’s also possible that your dog simply likes the taste of grass, and doesn’t mind puking afterward.

Some people speculate that dogs can get essential nutrients from grass. In fact, a product called Barley Dog is promoted as a way to deliver grainy nutrients to dogs. According to Green Foods, which makes Barley Dog, “The problem with eating whole grass is that each blade is covered with microscopic barbs that can irritate your pet’s stomachs.” That irritation, of course, is why dogs puke.

So, is puking simply a side-effect of your dog hungering for micronutrients, or is your dog eating grass because he or she got into your stash of three-year old dead frogs? Or maybe there is another reason…

One interesting theory is that eating grass comes from the ancestral days of wild dogs, when they unintentionally took in undigested grass while eating the guts of prey animals they brought down. So perhaps your dog’s behavior is rooted in nostalgia for the good ol’ days when he or she ate real animals and not manufactured pet food.

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