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Flash in the Pan

Wrestling with mud season


Here we are on the cusp of mud season—the unsung, unofficial fifth season of the year. Mud season combines the intoxicating aroma of wet earth with the surprising color of green poking through the wet brown. Mud season awakens our dormant inner stirrings for a return to the garden, and the would-be gardener is hard-pressed to resist the urge to start digging.

Me, I turn the compost pile, complain to my family about tracking mud in the house, pick up the soggy dog turds revealed by the melting snow. And most importantly, I order seeds.

Now, if I were a real farmer I would have already ordered my seeds in January. By now, early March, I would be in my greenhouse tending my seedling trays, having already started some of them, like onions and shallots. I’d be mixing my potting soil, fixing my fences, and generally preparing to be out standing in my field.

When you hang out with real farmers, it’s easy to feel demoralized and hopelessly behind schedule. But even in a moving-target of a growing season like we have in Montana, there is still some slack. And you can always wait until May or June to buy seedlings at the farmers’ market, thereby saving yourself a whole lot of trouble. You can also go to the hardware store or the garden store or the food store, and buy your seeds there.

On the other hand, it’s nice to sit around during the dark, cold days with a warm beverage and flip through the pages of a seed catalog. It’s a tangible reminder that each day connects to the next, no matter how loud the lion of March may roar. The sun will shine again.

And seed catalogs are much more than a means of procuring seeds—they’re all-around garden resources. A good seed catalog is a book, supply catalog, how-to manual, networking tool and compendium of philosophy, history and poetry—all in one package. All are integrally involved in the act of growing food, so it makes sense that they appear in the pages directed to those in need of seeds.

One of my favorites is the Fedco catalog, based in Waterville, Maine. Its newsprint pages are scattered with quotes and cartoons, as well as in-depth discussions on a wide range of topics. A discussion on saving your seeds, for example (yes, a seed catalog promoting seed-saving) is followed by brief descriptions of seed-saving organizations you can contact for support. Meanwhile, every page contains art, from anatomically correct drawings of the goods to whimsical and archetypal depictions that recall the essence of why we grow food: warm and cozy hearth scenes, steaming meals, and glimpses of a dimly remembered fairy-tale world where magic was real, the forest was inhabited by gnomes and nymphs, and the sun had a face.

I ordered some Hutterite pole beans (great for chowder), some Beer Friend soy beans (just add steam, salt, and beer!), and Green Gopher muskmelon—which kept me in fresh melons for over two months straight last year. I also ordered my kim chi supplies: Chinese cabbage and daikon root, some shallot seeds which I’m hopefully not too late for, and some Klari Baby Cheese sweet peppers. I also got some anise, because I need it for my Chinese venison marinade. The catalog is available online, at

See, when you plan your seed order, you are planning more than a garden. You are planning a pantry, and a whole year of eating. Remember that some crops are more of a commitment than others, and it’s easy to go overboard at the dangerously theoretical level of seed ordering. Since I don’t have much of a setup for indoor seedlings, I mostly stick to seeds that can be direct-seeded, although I do make room in front of various windows for melon and pepper starts, because they have to happen.

Another great catalog comes from Ronniger’s Potato Farm. In addition to over 100 potato varieties, they sell onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic and other roots. For each crop, Ronniger’s provides information on how to plant, grow, harvest and store it. There are pages dedicated to root cellar designs, and a history of the potato, including discussions on wild potatoes and potato disease problems.

I’ve already got some of Ronniger’s honkin’ Romanian Red garlic in the ground, planted last fall. And I’m ordering some of their Butterfinger fingerling potatoes, which are about as creamy and buttery as potatoes get, and some Egyptian walking onions. Find them at

But if mud season has caught you blindsided and you want your seeds in a hurry, then you need Johnnys. The selection is at least as broad as Fedco’s, but unencumbered by the folksy, down-to-earth goodness. Johnnys is a model of streamlined efficiency. Visit, look at the beautiful pictures, read the detailed growing information, and order. The seeds will be at your door in a few days.

You’ve been warned. The clock is ticking. Go get stuck in the mud!

Editor’s note: This week’s Flash in the Pan is reprinted from March 2004. Chef Boy Ari will return with a new column next week.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Not so minty fresh

Dear Chef Boy Ari,

My girlfriend has more virtues than I could possibly count. Her breath, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. She has a love of extremely strong foods in quantities that are sometimes hard to believe—the other day she made an entire meal of nothing but raw garlic (I’m not exaggerating).

Such a meal will haunt her exhalations for hours, and I fear her breath. At first it smells like garlic, which I can deal with, sort of. But after a few hours it smells like something crawled in her mouth and died. I don’t feel good about turning away when she launches her breath in my general direction, but the smell is such a turnoff I don’t have much of a choice. She says garlic is good for you, and she likes it, and doesn’t want to change her eating habits, although it bothers her that her breath bothers me.

What should we do?

—Ducking for cover

A: Dear Ducker,

While the health benefits of garlic are well known, I haven’t seen any reports on the benefits of mass garlic intake. I suggest you two try to find a compromise. Maybe she could tone down her intake to a level that a few sprigs of parsley, chewed throughout the day, could cover. Parsley really does work as a breath freshener, though supposedly it’s the chlorophyll that does it, and other chlorophyll-rich plants like wheatgrass would work as well.

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