By Kim Johnson
The catalogs came in the mail, with their glistening, full color photos of perfect produce. Round, ripe, meaty tomatoes with names like “Beefsteak.” Never mind that Beefsteak needs a long, hot, humid summer, 100 plus degree weather, and night time temperatures above 80 degrees, my mind, loaded full frame with the image of this tomato: a child holding a two pound specimen which obviously indicated the ease of culture for this plant. It didn’t matter that no one outside of Iowa could grow such a monster. I coveted it. I was seduced. That’s what catalogs do. This year I vowed not to be seduced.
Garden catalogs can easily fill the head of the novice gardener with delusions of grandeur. They are a bit like reading real estate ads: you have to read between the lines. Sure, the exotic Israeli “Moon and Stars” melon sounds intriguing, with its celestial artwork presented on its rough skin, but when was the last time you saw one? The description should read, “Melon with potential! Needs TLC! Location! Location! Location!” Location? Try Israel since it doesn’t grow well anywhere else.
The determined gardener could spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours trying to mimic the growing conditions this melon requires, including hiring an electrician to provide a GFI outlet in the garden to heat the soil at night by light bulb.
This year my seed order will not include exotic Israeli melons, instead only the best things my garden will grow with ease: butter lettuces, Swiss chard, French and wax beans, Danver’s half long carrots, sugar snap peas, sweet corn and old fashioned French heirloom Cinderella pumpkins. I will purchase my tomatoes separately and not fuss with starting seeds indoors this year. If you have a greenhouse or a love of projects that are tedious and often yield poor results, by all means start your tomatoes from seed. Otherwise buy your tomato plants at Fred Meyer.
So with a stack of seed catalogs at my side and a steaming mug of tea, I began to make a list. This is the perfect activity to drive away the winter blues and the best part is that one can devote several weeks to reworking it. I like to think of this first seed order as a “garden of the mind.” After tallying up my list, it came to roughly three thousand dollars. I will need a three-acre vegetable plot surrounded by ten foot deer fencing, and I’ll be able to feed approximately six hundred adults.
It was about this time that I got practical and picked up my tired and true copy of the Renee’s Garden seed catalog. With its hand drawn pictures and beautiful written descriptions it may lack the “bling” of full color, glossy pages in Parks or Burpee but it put me in a more realistic state of mind. Inside is a brilliant collection of lettuces, chards, and spinach that our long, cool season will produce. The produce that I pick in July and August will look remarkably like the pictures. No false advertising here. A lovely selection of French beans and wax beans, nature’s perfect foods, will readily grow from seed in our maritime gardens. Wax beans, picked fresh from the garden, blanched in boiling salted water for three minutes and then briefly sautéed in a tablespoon of rendered bacon fat, and coated with coarse sea salt will rival any two pound Midwestern tomato.
I placed my order and went outside to gaze upon the lovely 25 x 25 piece of earth my seeds will call home. The soil has been amended to rich, dark humus loaded with earthworms and beneficial nematodes. Last fall I top dressed my plot with a combination of chopped leaves and a variety of manures, horse, rabbit, sheep, and guinea pig (courtesy of the third grade class pet). This was all left fallow and tilled in during the brief but perfect weather in the beginning of February, before random snow storms had the opportunity to dampen my spirit.
Let me just say a brief word about rototilling. There is an art to tilling the land and it involves the gas powered rear tine tiller. Do not waste your time with front tine tillers unless you want your arms wrenched from their sockets. This might also be the time to point out a little safety tip regarding machinery that spins and loose floppy clothing. Regardless of the weather, and all fashion aside, a long trailing scarf is not the thing to wear while rototilling. I will not take up your time to explain how I know this.
If you have a love of turning over the earth with a shovel and raking it smooth, and you are relatively young, or have free labor from capable children, by all means go for it; otherwise, you will enjoy the fruits and vegetables of your labor with the smell of peppermint Icy Hot wafting from your back. Not a bad combination with peas perhaps…
Now, there is nothing like freshly tilled earth to draw cats from three counties so be cautious when planting seeds lest you unearth their unsavory calling cards. Plant your seeds in an orderly fashion, following the instructions for plant spacing on the back of the packet. This is the time to practice reasonable restraint. Sure you can grow six zucchini plants in a three foot space but if you haven’t a mother–in-law at the ready to stuff them with fifteen pounds of ground beef and a can of stewed tomatoes, don’t push the envelope.
When night time temperatures remain above 50 degrees, usually in May, I will shop for tomato plants, not the glorious, two pound Beefsteak that I have no hope of bringing to perfection; but a Pacific Northwest tomato such as Early Girl or Celebrity that will tolerate our relatively cooler summers. Lemon Boy also gives good results and beautiful color. Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are heavy yielders. Sautéing them in a pan with olive oil, fresh dill, coarse salt and freshly ground pepper until the skins crack will all but eliminate Beefsteak from the mind. Try it yourself and see.