Sprout an edible garden in your mind
STORY BY BILL THORNESS
I am restless behind my windows, and the garden beckons. But January always offers up slate-gray mornings and frosty nights, and though the winter solstice is behind us, I feel boxed in by these short days. As I gaze out at my streetlight-lit garden in the endless eventide, I decide that the only antidote is an armchair getaway. In a time like this, gardening catalogically has to suffice.
The rough-hewn wood of a wide field gate shields a broad garden of gently sloping rows ready for planting. Beyond are border herb and flower beds and white fence posts against a dark, protective tree line. A beautiful sunrise peeks over the scene, lighting up a skiff of clouds, painting the edges in peach against a pale-blue sky.
It could be my dream garden. It’s also the cover image of the top seed catalog on a stack that grows with each mail delivery.
These wily seed marketers, they know what I pine for. My little urban vegetable plot looks nothing like this rural paradise, but in my mind, I’m out there like my farmer father, in silver-striped bib overalls, ploughing the back 40. (Yes, ploughing, not plowing; winter is for nostalgia.)
I applaud the efforts of the catalog-makers, because this is what I want in frigid January, when I am stuck looking at the frost-covered cloche and shivering brassicas from my living room window.
Cracking the spine on a newly arrived seed catalog provides nearly as much anticipation as unwrapping a Christmas book.
Often, the first seed catalog to arrive is one of my favorites, from the homegrown Territorial Seed Company of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Its watercolor cover images transport me to summer, with lush watermelon vines and slices of the juicy fruit in a bowl on a garden bench — or perfect ripe-red tomatoes weighing down the trellis.
I’m drawn to the colorful photos of new products, perhaps hybrid winter squash that promises more fruit in less garden space, or luscious full-season tomatoes with fewer days to maturity.
Edamame! Have you ever grown your own soybeans? The popular Japanese appetizer grows as readily as other beans in our climate. Simply steam, toss with sea salt, and pop them out of their skins between your teeth. Try the Midori Giant variety, which promises “extra-early maturing” in 70 days — perfect for a cool-weather garden.
So many lettuce varieties from which to choose. Maybe just plant the ones with the most entertaining names: ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed’ (a single-savoyed butterhead), ‘Eiffel Tower’ and ‘Devil’s Tongue’ (both romaines, but surely different shapes). Or how about a bed combining loose-leaf ‘New Red Fire’ and ‘Green Ice’?
Staying “territorial,” I browse the annual offerings of Wild Garden Seed and Adaptive Seeds, also from Oregon, and Uprising Seeds, from up Bellingham way.
Wild Garden is the product of longtime plant breeders and seed growers Frank and Karen Morton, along with family and farmer friends growing seed crops in the Willamette Valley. Frank seems an educator at heart, and the catalog offers essays on seed ethics as well as seed-saving techniques. Their definition of open-pollinated varieties is realistic and concise: “an openly breeding population of plants with more or less uniform traits, appearance, and adaptations, that produce progeny of like qualities.”
Among Wild Garden’s “Farm Originals,” you will find a tribe of Ruso-Siberian kales that have been grown and bred for many years, producing delightful, sometimes wild, take-offs on the more familiar kales.
Adaptive Seeds describes their focus as “steward[ing] rare, diverse and resilient seed varieties for ecologically minded farmers, gardeners and seed savers.” How can you not want to support that effort? And try ‘Piglet Willie’s French Black Tomato’?
Up north, Uprising Seeds is growing nearly half of their astonishing variety of seed offerings on their organic farm east of Bellingham. As with the other bio-regional seed companies, they also rely on a network of farmer-friends who share their seed ethos.
Three new Uprising offerings are already on my list. ‘Filder’ cabbage was discovered by the farmers at a food fair in Italy. It makes great sauerkraut and is delightfully described as having “comically elongated” heads: “A bed of them looks like a row of pointy green gnome hats.” Sold!
Or how about a blue dill, sourced from Romania. There, the farmers learned, the Sighisoara Blue variety is used solely in desserts. Since dill is used medicinally to promote healthy digestion, says the catalog, it “makes a perfect dessert herb, sweetly easing the stomach.” Your dinner guests will thank you.
Finally, I am springing for a cheese pumpkin. ‘Long Island Cheese,’ in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste pantheon, used to be a standard for pumpkin pie. It’s good for that, and more. Uprising’s writers describe a simple recipe that uses it raw and sounds delectable: “sliced very thinly in ribbons and tossed with radicchio, hazelnuts, sliced pears, and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses as an autumnal salad.”
But good things don’t all come from Washington and Oregon. I commend to you Kitazawa Seed Company, a century-old family company. Their catalog offers 50 pages of Asian vegetables that almost all fit perfectly into the plantings of a cool-season gardener.
Many of Kitazawa’s offerings are heirloom seeds, known as dento yasai, or traditional varieties of Japan. That fact caused me to seek and appreciate their guidance when I wrote my book “Edible Heirlooms,” and I continue to grow their varieties featured in that book:
- Kalian, a tender Chinese kale, offers up mild flower buds and pale-green leaves on succulent stalks.
- Mizuna provides a feathery Medusa-head of spiky, serrated leaves that pale almost to white at their base. The tangy green will spark up many a salad, but is not too spicy, so it can be featured as a main ingredient in a simple salad if you prefer.
- Pak Choi is offered in green- or white-stem types, and I’ve tried a half-dozen of them, but I prefer Tatsoi, which reliably produces a beautiful rosette of deep-green, spoon-shaped leaves that are succulent and mildly mustardy in a stir-fry.
If you haven’t grown Asian vegetables before, try a Kitizawa mix: Asian Salad Garden, Japanese Heirloom Garden, Macrobiotic Garden, or Thai Garden. Or try the Shabu Shabu Garden, where you will grow the veggies used in a nabemono (hot pot) meal.
Often gardeners hold seed exchanges in January, to sit with friends and wax poetic about favorite varieties. Here in Seattle, we’ve ratcheted it up to a public event: the Great Seattle Seed Swap, the main annual event of the King County Seed Lending Library.
Gardening-starved gardeners like me will crowd around the tables, with catalogs and jars of seeds in front of us, and talk about vegetables we love or ones we want to try. Workshops teach seed-saving basics. Kids make “seed bombs.” Seeds are scooped into small envelopes and tucked away for this year’s experiments.
Join us at the swap on National Seed Swap Day, Saturday, Jan. 28, 1–3 p.m. at the Phinney Center in northwest Seattle. Bring your spare seeds and favorite catalogs. You’ll be sure to find a few seeds to try, and then you can turn to your trusty seed catalogs and support our local growers, as you dream up the rest of your 2017 edible garden.
Bill Thorness is the author of Cool Season Gardener and Edible Heirlooms, and is presently worried that he has offended his other favorite seed companies that couldn’t all fit into this article. An extensive list and mash note can be found at his website, coolseasongardener.com.