A seedy affair

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The seed catalogs have arrived. It is time for a bout of self-examination: Are we up to this?

Are we really going to start a bunch of seedlings indoors this year, and coddle them through the wild mood swings of spring? Will we let them take over our living room with arrays of shelving and high-wattage fluorescent tubes? Will we be up to the task of protecting them, fussing over them, timing their introduction as a precious crop of debutantes to the great outdoors?

If past years are any indication, we will probably over-order wildly, then let life intervene with our grand plans. Not this year. This year will be different. (It won’t. But I won’t fully admit it until at least April.)


The Fedco catalog is far and away my favorite. No color, no glossy paper, no photographs: just an encyclopedic tome of heirloom classics and rare varieties, livened up with old-tymey illustrations and lovingly prolix descriptions.

“The discriminating French palate demands smaller, sweeter, more tender pods with peas that are only about half the size of the ones we eat here,” Fedco writes of Iona Petit Pois, a shell pea I might have to try this year. “Although it takes more time and trouble to pick a mess of these, the rewards are commensurate with the effort.”

The catalogs are full of these warnings about the pitfalls of tricky-yet-delectable varieties, which mostly I fail to heed. If I were smarter, I’d stick to the basics, and stop letting my January fantasies of perfect cantaloupes and tender Brandywines seduce me into investing in garden divas. Kale is great for Catskills gardens: a hardy, un-fussy producer that can be tossed right into the dirt before last frost, comes up reliably and chugs along well into December. Trouble is, if you plant kale seeds, all you get is kale.

Perhaps if these seed catalogs would stop laying it on so thick, I’d be a more reasonable seed-orderer. The melons are outrageous. “Zone 5a,” I have to keep muttering to myself, while flipping through page after page of heady descriptions of perfumed muskmelons and Charentais. Supposedly it is possible to grow Moon and Stars (100 days to maturity) in Maine. A better gardener than I am could surely coax more than one unripe little melon out of my backyard in Margaretville.

Cucurbitous temptations notwithstanding, pages 67 to 73 in the Fedco catalog are the real centerfold, as far as I’m concerned: the tomatoes. I tend to over-order, and there’s a shoe box full of ancient seeds in the basement to prove it.

I’m a terrible sucker for a good name, and so I always have to get a packet of Cosmonaut Volkov. It’s a fine tomato, a red tomato, an honest tomato. It probably wouldn’t stand up in a taste test against a perfect Pink Brandywine, but that’s not stopping me from letting it take up too much of the sunniest bed. It gets its fabulous name from the Russian space explorer Vladislav Volkov, hero of the Space Age, who died in 1971 along with the rest of the crew of the Soyuz 11 when a valve in the craft opened prematurely on reentry.

Volkov isn’t the only historical figure immortalized in tomato form. If we wanted, we could grow dark, compact Paul Robeson tomatoes, or big fragile red beefsteaks named for Mark Twain, who did not like them.

Despite my annual winter love affair with the seed catalog, the most reliable product of our garden is likely to be, once again, trash squash. The product of errant hybridization, these rogue vegetables sprout reliably from the compost pile and garden beds with no help from us. Early in the season, they appear here and there randomly as volunteers, their first frilly leaves and adorable curling tendrils poking shyly through the mulch. By August, they have transmogrified into sprawling monsters, shading out their less robust fellows and sending out rippling tentacles to colonize the yard. I ought to weed them out, but I’m always too curious to see what kind of freakish fruits they’re going to bear.

In the process of looking up some reference material for this column, I read that one should not eat the trash squash, which was news to me. Squashes and pumpkins are bred to keep plants from expressing natural compounds called cucurbitacins, bitter-tasting compounds that prevent insects (and humans) from chowing down on the developing fruits. When squashes are allowed to hybridize willy-nilly with each other and with wild relatives, they can produce alarmingly cucurbitacin-laden offspring, and if you’re extremely unlucky they might even put you in the hospital with a bout of gastric distress.

It’s too bad. In keeping with the household philosophy of using every part of the mutant monster vegetable, I’ve been tossing the more edible-looking ones into curries and soups, with varying results. In the interest of not low-key poisoning my entire family out of sheer cheapness, I should probably refrain. But if nothing else, we will be extra-prepared this year for Decorative Gourd Season.