Flash in the Pan 

Sowing the seeds of salad

Baby mama spends about 5K a year on salad makings. Lettuce, escarole, radicchio, kale, celery and parsley, as well as olive oil, cider vinegar, soy sauce and whatever we run out of from the root cellar. So far we're good on garlic, almost out of carrots, out of onions, and our beets sucked last year, so she buys those too.

I'm not complaining; I'd much rather she spend that money on salad than, say, booze or crack—especially since she's nursing the little guy. Nonetheless, the price tag on her salad habit gives a sense of urgency to the garden, and any offset I can provide to the financial drain of her salad bowl gets me very excited. Gone are the carefree days of playing in the dirt. I'm still just a gardener, but I'm taking things farmer-seriously.

My first lettuce crop, transplanted from the clutches of winter, is already two inches tall in the window, and I've already ordered more seeds. Still, I feel the clock ticking, and a faint nervousness that I'm forgetting to do something. In the mountains where we live, the growing season between hard frosts is a moving target.

Barely past the solstice, the days are only yet inching their way longer; soon the change will become dramatic. My neighbor—the old hippy farmer who lives in a mud house—has a weather station that tracks the length of the days. Today it was eight hours and thirty-two minutes. Solstice, the shortest day, was 8:26.

At about 10 hours of sunlight, stuff really starts to grow, he said recently, with a sense of urgency, as he fretted over his imminent seed order. A lot of the places he likes to order from run out early, he said.

That may be true, but the good news is never in history have pickings been as diverse and accessible to the would-be seed purchaser. The options are, if anything, overwhelming.

Ordering seeds is an endeavor where caution, like the seeds themselves, can be safely thrown to the wind. For the home gardener, few purchases are more forgiving than seeds. A packet costs less than a beer in most towns, and the contents can change your life. The worst that can happen is nothing. More likely, if you keep those plants alive and pay attention to what happens, you'll learn something about what grows well in your home ground.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Last summer, one of my plots became something of a seed ecosystem. It began the year as the garlic patch, which was planted the prior fall. As the garlic came up in the spring I observed, as I do every spring, how much unused space there is between garlic plants—36 square inches if you plant them six inches apart.

Last spring, however, I was prepared, having ordered several kinds of seed to plant in the spaces between the garlic plants. When they were about eight inches tall, I planted the seeds in hurled handfuls. The only real order to this planting was that I devoted half the patch to carrots.

I had a hunch about carrots because of their lush, shady foliage, which I envisioned shading the ground, reducing water lost to evaporation, and encouraging a more humid, microbially active soil, which is key to healthy crops. And because carrots grow straight down I figured they wouldn't compete with the garlic bulbs underground.

I got packets of Purple Haze and Deep Purple, because I'm a sucker for the sharp contrast between their bright orange and purple when they're in the mix, and because both varieties are tasty, crispy and big. I also planted some mild white carrot seeds, and some tapered orange carrots called Hercules.

I scattered the other half randomly: lettuce, escarole, radicchio, broccoli, corn, peas, cilantro and spinach seeds, just to see what would happen.

This understory, shaded by the garlic, inherited the full sun in July when we dug the garlic. The seedy understory developed a canopy. Many salads' worth of leaves were harvested.

But the carrots stole the show. As promised in the catalog, the Hercules were indeed "broad shouldered." Even the two-pounders were perfectly sweet.

Some of the leafy plants went to seed at the end of the summer and, right before it got really cold, some baby lettuce, escarole and cilantro plants sprouted. I dug them up and put them in seedling trays by a south-facing window. They're growing so well that now I'm scheming ways to harvest even more sunlight through the windows. Every snagged photon is money in the bank when my sweetpie reaches for her salad spinner.

The old hippy says the best greenhouse tomato is Sungold cherry tomato, and he offered to dig me some seedlings that sprouted under his years-old Sungold tree to plant in buckets near those windows. I'll have to save some room for trays of shallot seedlings, which should be started in March. Another reason to place that seed order ASAP.

Today's seed orderer has a bounty of options, most of them available in hard-catalog or online. Who you order from depends most on where you are and what you want to grow. My default is Johnny's Seeds, for its selection, photos, shipping speed, cultivation information and customer service. I also like FedCo for overall coolness factor, most whimsical catalog, rambling honesty and a fantastic selection of heirlooms. Interestingly, both of those are from Maine. But there are so many other great seed outfits that it's almost unfair to start naming names. Since I did, here are a few more: High Mowing, Seed Savers Exchange, Peaceful Valley, Jung's, Territorial. Many more exist as well, and by all means, in your seed-spreading, consider spreading seeds from more than one of these companies.

The old hippy likes Gourmet Seed, Totally Tomatoes and Southern Exposure. I ordered some chocolate habaneros from totallytomato.com. The catalog says they have lots of flavor. Habaneros get attention for their heat, while their amazing flavor gets overlooked, so I have high hopes for these.

I'll start those habaneros in the south-facing window, alongside the shallot seedlings and Milfy's salad patch. And when daylight hits 10 hours, I'll start hurling my seeds at the garlic patch all over again.

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