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Flash in the Pan

Seed catalog strategy



In his book Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Tim Cahill states, "I am a man who sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people peruse seed catalogs or accounts of classic chess games."

As a seed catalog peruser, I at first took offense at being lumped in with the chess nerds. But after giving it some thought I realized that both gardening and chess, like wilderness survival, are strategic disciplines linked to the human journey from slime to the top of the food chain.

Situations requiring war, of which chess is an abstraction, and wilderness survival are arguably better avoided than engaged, but gardening remains an outgrowth of evolutionary necessity you can truly enjoy.

This time of year it pays to think many moves ahead and consider what you hope to accomplish, food-wise, by the end of the growing season. How many quarts of pickles do you want to put up? Which vegetables do you want to store blanched and frozen in the freezer? What do you want to eat next summer?

Not all of this food needs be grown in the garden. We're not brave pioneers eking out a living on the harsh frontier. Hitting the farmers' market, coffee in hand, is one of the joys of community living, while patronizing retail stores that support local farmers is not only convenient, it's an important contribution to the local economy.

My food plan includes growing what I want on-hand for immediate use and what I can't find elsewhere. I go for a diverse garden that's broader than it is deep, that allows me to run outside on a whim and pick all the ingredients I need for a meal. But for my long-term storage needs, I expect to rely on some professional help.

The only crops I grow in quantity are garlic—because I'm a snob and I can usually grow bigger and better bulbs than what I can buy—and shallots, which are like extra-strong onions and awesome for cooking, and ridiculously expensive to buy.

The other crops in my garden are "experimentals," new-fangled crops or obscure heirlooms that haven't become popular enough to buy. Last year I played around with Mango Melon, a small, oblong melon that tastes like an extra-sweet cucumber. They were okay, but kind of neither here nor there, and didn't find a place in my kitchen after the novelty wore off. One experimental I was impressed with, and that I'll be planting again, is a variety of purple carrot called Purple Haze. In addition to their striking dark purple skin and bright orange interiors, they grew large and uniform in my soil while others didn't, and had a strong, sweet flavor.

It can be challenging to contain yourself when faced with a seed catalog, because the temptation to order a whole farm's worth of seeds is great. Be wary of buying seeds that need to be started indoors and then transplanted. It may seem like a great savings—you can get a whole packet of tomato seeds for the price of one baby tomato plant—but after years of trying to raise my own seedlings I've decided to leave that to the experts. There are all kinds of "hidden costs" in gear and supplies, and it's likely your tomato starts will look like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. So I get my starts from farmers, either farmer friends or at the market. My only exceptions to this rule are shallots, which I think grow much better from seeds than sets (sets are mini-shallot bulbs), and the occasional experimental—some cool-looking tomato, pepper, okra or melon that I really want to try, but don't think anyone will be selling as starts.

There are plenty of seed catalogs out there to choose from. Space won't allow me to describe all the worthy ones, but these comprise my top three:

  • Photo Ari LeVaux

Johnny's ( is a tight company that's pulling ahead of the pack thanks to an ambitious breeding and testing program, a catalog loaded with photos and cultivation information, and lightning turnaround. The Fedco catalog ( is also worth a look. It reminds me of a modern Whole Earth catalog with whimsical drawings, folksy wisdom and information-rich commentary on the current state of farming and the world. And Fedco's seed selection is solid. Seed Savers Exchange ( is dedicated exclusively to the worthy goal of preserving heirloom seed varieties, and is worth considering if you want to play around with some old-school plants. Seed Savers' tomato selection is especially impressive and intriguing.

Honorable mentions in the crowded field of quality seed companies include High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seeds of Change, Jung's, Territorial, Peaceful Valley and R.H. Shumway's (pictured at left).

This year, in addition to ordering my usual spinach, peas, squash, radish, beets, kale, lettuce, corn, basil, cucumber and melon seeds, I'm going to experiment with Indigo radicchio, Winter Density romaine, Keystone endive and Purple Pak carrots, all direct-seeded (that is, sown directly into the garden). I'll also be ordering seeds for Ambition red shallots and Saffron yellow shallots, which will probably be the only plants I start indoors unless I get off my ass and build a greenhouse.

I'll sow the shallot seeds evenly in non-celled trays in February, as I would with onions, and keep them near a window. When they grow to five inches I'll cut them down to two inches with scissors, which will cause them to fill out in girth. I'll do this every time they hit five inches, and transplant them in April or May.

My seed order may not teach me how to amputate a limb caught by a falling rock, or help me lead an army into battle, and that's okay. This kind of armchair strategizing will help me eat well all summer long, and keep me in shallots through the winter. And that's good enough for me.

Ask Ari: Goodbye, gluten

Q: Dear Ari,

How about doing a column on gluten intolerance?

Alternatively, how about answering this question: Would you please share some good (non-tomato) sauce recipes that have no gluten (wheat, barley, rye or oats) or milk in them? Caution: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, non-pure spices, and other common products often contain wheat or maltodextrin.

—Sauceless in Arlee

A: Several commercial sauces, like A Taste of Thai and Wild Thymes, are guaranteed gluten-free, though most don't aggressively market themselves as such—probably from fear of losing gluten-tolerant customers who might assume the sauces are less delicious due to their restricted ingredient sets.

Here's a recipe for a great red chile sauce that has only red chile pods, oregano, garlic and, if you want, chicken stock.

Remove the stems and seeds of 10 large dried red chile pods, and soak them in 3 cups warm water (or gluten-free stock). After an hour, put the pods in a blender with a head of garlic, chopped, and 2 tablespoons dried oregano. Blend, adding the water that the chiles soaked in, a little at a time, to keep the whirling sauce vortexing, but don't let it get too soupy.

To use it, brown some meat in an oiled pan, then add chopped onions. When the onions become translucent, add the chile sauce and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat. Alternatively, marinate the meat overnight in the chile sauce, and then add it to a pan of browned onions and cook until delicious.

For another, more complicated sauce, find my mole recipe in the Indy archives from last year.

As for an article on gluten intolerance, I'll think about it. I'll have to do some homework first.

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