Plotting the pantry 

Perusing seed catalogs during the season of mud

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Here we are on the cusp of mud season -- the unsung, unofficial fifth season of the year. Mud season combines the intoxicating aroma of wet earth with the surprising color of green poking through the melting snow. Mud season awakens our dormant inner stirrings for a return to the garden, and the would-be gardener is hard-pressed to resist the urge to start digging.

Me, I turn the compost pile, complain to my family about tracking mud in the house, pick up the soggy dog turds revealed by the melting snow. And most importantly, I order seeds.

Now, if I were a real farmer, I would have already ordered my seeds in January. By now, early March, I would be in my greenhouse preparing seedling trays, having already started some of them, like shallots. And I would be out standing in my field, of course.

When you hang out with real farmers, it's easy to feel demoralized and hopelessly behind schedule. But even in a moving target of a growing season like we have in the Rocky Mountain West, there is still some slack. And you can always wait until May or June to buy seedlings at the farmers' market, thereby saving yourself a whole lot of trouble. You can also go to the hardware store or the garden store or the food store and buy your seeds there.

On the other hand, it's nice to sit around during the dark, cold days with a warm beverage and flip through the pages of a seed catalog. It's a tangible reminder that each day connects to the next, no matter how loud the lion of March may roar. The sun will shine again.

And seed catalogs are much more than a means of procuring seeds -- they're all-around garden resources. A good seed catalog is a book, supply catalog, how-to manual, networking tool, and compendium of philosophy, history and poetry -- all in one package. All are integrally involved in the act of growing food, so it makes sense that they appear in the pages directed to those in need of seeds.

One of my favorites is the Fedco catalog, based in Waterville, Maine. Its newsprint pages are scattered with quotes and cartoons, as well as in-depth discussions on a wide range of topics. A discussion on saving your seeds, for example (yes, a seed catalog promoting seed-saving) is followed by brief descriptions of six seed-saving organizations that you can contact for support. Meanwhile, every page contains art, from anatomically correct drawings of the goods to whimsical and archetypal depictions that recall the essence of why we grow food: warm and cozy hearth scenes, steaming meals, and glimpses of a dimly remembered fairy-tale world where magic was real, the forest was inhabited by gnomes and nymphs, and the sun had a face.

I ordered some Hutterite pole beans (great for chowder), some Beer Friend soybeans (just add steam, salt and beer!), and Green Gopher muskmelon -- which kept me in fresh melons for over two months straight last year. I also ordered my kimchi supplies: Chinese cabbage and daikon root; some shallot seeds, which I'm hopefully not too late for; and some Klari Baby Cheese sweet peppers -- I'll try anything once or twice. I also got some anise, because I need it for my Chinese venison marinade.

See, when you plan your seed order, you are planning more than a garden. You are planning a pantry, and a whole year of eating. Remember that some crops are more of a commitment than others, and it's easy to go overboard at the dangerously theoretical level of seed ordering. Since I don't have much of a setup for indoor seedlings, I mostly stick to seeds that can be direct-seeded, although I do make room in front of various windows for melon and pepper starts, because they have to happen.

Another great catalog comes from Ronniger's Potato Farm, based in the Northern Idaho panhandle. In addition to over 100 potato varieties, they sell onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic and other roots. For each crop, Ronniger's provides information on how to plant, grow, harvest and store it. There are pages dedicated to root cellar designs, a history of the potato and a discussion on the Haflinger horse, a small but strong breed from the Tirolean mountains of Austria that Ronniger's raises and sells.

I've already got some of Ronniger's honkin' Romanian Red garlic in the ground, planted last fall. And I'm ordering some of their Butterfinger fingerling potatoes, which are about as creamy and buttery as potatoes get, and some Egyptian walking onions.

If you want a copy of either one of these catalogs, give these companies a shout and they will send you one. They'll liven up your mud season, for sure.

Chef Boy Ari writes and gardens in Missoula, Mont.

Fedco Seeds



Ronniger's Potato Farm



More seed catalogs to liven up your mud season:

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Good value on seed collections



Seeds of Change

100 percent certified organic seeds



Pinetree Garden Seeds

Many heirloom and old-fashioned varieties

207/926-3400 or 888/52-SEEDS


Territorial Seed Company

Conventional, organic and biodynamic seed, many new varieties



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