Flash in the Pan 

I could still be a contender

This was the year I would not fail. Got the seed catalog in January. Sent my order in early March. Started my seeds ten days later. Start to finish baby, this was the year. Chef Boy Ari’s best garden ever.

Starting inside from seed ain’t easy. You put some too close together, or in not enough light, and they get spindly and frail—like my tomatoes. You plant some too early and you have to re-pot ten times before it’s time to put them in the garden—like my winter squash. You put some in the ground too early and they get frosted or stepped on by the dog before they can grow big enough to command respect—like my cucumbers. Or you do everything right, and then go camping for the night, and the person you asked to water your seedlings flakes on you. You return to the brown and twisted remains of your infant garden.

There you are, back at square one, while the growing season marches toward harvest time—with or without you. Late spring can be a tough time for the sensitive yet distracted, incompetent, or just plain unlucky gardener who has fallen off the leading edge of the growing season.

Me? Well, I haven’t quite failed, and my waterers didn’t flake, but I will nonetheless be taking my forthcoming advice here pretty soon. I started all my seeds that same day in March. Could have been more organized. Some, I could have waited on—and given more attention to the things that really needed it, like leggy tomatoes and slow-motion peppers.

But, no problem. It’s OK to forsake a wad of self-sufficiency, capitalize on the handiwork of others, and pounce right back into the growing season. The sooner you pounce, the better.

According to my alter-twin step-cousin and occasional farming consultant Don Guido Ashkinazi, the only things it really is too late to plant are the early-season bolters, like spinach and radishes. And you’re on the edge with broccoli and cauliflower, which need to be large enough before they flower to be worth it.

Still, that leaves you with time to plant tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, summer squash, onions, celery, kale, lettuce, strawberries, etc., etc. And winter squash too—but soon, to make sure a late-August frost doesn’t knock you out of contention. I recommend the farmer’s market. In addition to being the all-time shmooze vortex of the week, it’s a great place to pick and choose your starts. Last week was a bull market, a frenzy of wheeling and dealing building up to an exuberant roar by the closing bell.

After the bell, growers actually have time to put up with the likes of Chef Boy Ari. I cornered my colleague in mayonnaise-ology and ace potato grower Cojones, of Lifeline Farms in Victor. “I’ve planted potatoes as late as the solstice, and still gotten a good crop,” contends Cojones. “Yukon Golds seem to do especially well for late-season production.”

Hmm. You can’t do much better than that. “Yukon Golds store a long time, and taste like melted butter,” adds Cojones, “and they almost don’t even need mayo.”

Professional growers tend to plant “seed potatoes” because they can’t afford the slim-yet-significant risk of infecting their fields with disease-laden spuds from the grocery store. But really, all potatoes are “seed potatoes”—except when they are sprayed with anti-sprouting chemicals.

Me, I get some potatoes from the store, cook a few to make sure I dig the taste, and then plant them. The best time to buy is pre-springtime, when you know any potato will be from last year, rather than an early crop from this year—which might not be ready to sprout yet. This time of year, look for bargain bags of wrinkled organic potatoes from last year.

Or, any potato that is sprouting.

Cut each spud into three or four pieces, making sure each has at least one “eye,” or future sprout. Dig a trench five inches deep, and lay the chunks a foot apart, sprouts up. As with almost everything else around here, the more you water it, the more it grows. As they grow, heap soil around the lower trunks, causing the plant to create more roots—ergo more potatoes.

You have other direct-seed options as well. You can still plant carrots, corn and beans. And if you really want to rock, pre-soak the corn and beans overnight to get the jump.

And you never know, my tomatoes might come around yet. Nursery Queen let me stash ’em in her hot greenhouse. They’re already looking green and dank. But this time of year, even a pale-leafed tomato can contend if you stick it in good dirt and treat it right.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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