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Friday, January 21, 2011

Going to Seed in the Valley….

The rain is pelting down outside,A gaggle of Canooks reaffirmation there’s still plenty of winter ahead. Definitely an indoor day; Gladys is warm and dry in the garage; and I’m sitting by the purring woodstove--not about to budge, either. Decks’ obnoxious pack of hounds will have to chase something else for exercise today, their tails, for all I care.

I look out at the desolation of last summer’s garden and the ghosts of vegetables past. Nothing there but dripping decay: what isn’t black and blasted is brown and rotting away. You might just as well be looking at an old black and white photograph and sepia toned, and water-soaked at that.

On a day dismal as this, where do you turn to dispel this monochrome of gloom? Well, I’ve got the answer right here beside me: this pile of colorful seed catalogs. And I do mean a stack of ‘em, fifteen to be exact. But I’ve yet to check today’s mail. Seed catalogs are like zucchini: plant one seed and you’ll yield enough green zeppelins to supply the entire Valley with zucchini bread. (Remember that Biblical miracle of the “loaves and fishes” and the feeding of the five thousand? I’ll swear those loaves were zucchini bread.) Order just one seed catalog the year before, and come the New Year, catalogs from the four corners of the earth will flock to your mailbox. But that’s ok. Let the winter rage away outside; I’ll sit here by the humming wood stove, thumb through this stack, plan this year’s vegetable crop, and do a little garden daydreaming.

A curious thing about these catalogs: many come from back east: Maine, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut…. Four or five out of Wisconsin. One from Indiana--The Vermont (?) Bean Seed Company. Another from Minnesota. Only two from the Pacific Northwest: Territorial Seeds and Abundant Life Seeds originate from Cottage Grove, Oregon. Dare one order seeds from places like Maine and New York that have much longer growing seasons than here? Catalogs list the “date to maturity” for each item in the catalog. I figure, given our cool, wet growing season, you have to factor in twenty additional days before harvest. A variety of corn ripe for roasting in Pennsylvania would just be tasseling here. Perhaps there should be a greenhouse icon for those seeds destined for planting in our gentle maritime climate?

As I leaf through pages and pages of these pictorial gardens, I wonder about those photographs. Don’t those tomatoes look like they could roll right off the page and into your salad? And those green beans? Add some oriental noodles and mushroom soup to that picture and there’s your green bean casserole! That sweet corn—watch out the butter doesn’t drip off your chin and stain your clothes. (Exception Shumway’s catalog out of Wisconsin, black and white line drawings. Their gimmick: nostalgia, a throw back to those pioneer days before printing prpeppers Aesses added color, those old privy days where extra paper was at a premium.) Do these companies hire the Ansel Adams or Annie Leibowitz’s of vegetable photography to capture the best sides of their products?

Good question and the Ripple is right on it. A little investigative journalism is in order. I call the Burpee folks and put the question to them. George takes my call and before I can ask my question, George asks me a half dozen of his own. When I ask mine, he replies, “Now, that’s a good question!” George, though, is top notch as far as customer service: “Let me see if I can find out” and puts me on hold where I listen to some very unvegetable-like Musak for quite some time. George returns and tells me that Burpee will not divulge that information. “Is that a breach of national security?” I ask. George chuckles nervously: “I don’t know,” he says, “I just do what they ax me.”And shouldn’t we all! Good man, that George. Apparently, though, he doesn’t have clearance for that top secret stuff. I thank him for his time and move on to...

“Totally Tomatoes,” (well, not “totally”: every now and then they squeeze a few peppers in between the thousand or so varieties of tomatoes)…. If you’re a tomato lover, TT’s 2011 is a pictorial tomato portfolio. I ordered two packets of a “rare” pepper variety Peppers B from “Totally” last year. One of the packets contained no seeds. I returned the pack and they sent me another, no hassle whatsoever. Seeds this time, but no apologies. Their photographer, I ask? Totally Tomato spokeswoman Sharon has no idea but gives me the voice mail of Dottie who won’t be in until next week. Dottie heads the catalogue department. I leave my name and number and my question, but I have a hunch I won’t be getting a call-back from Ms. Dottie.

I can’t remember who takes my call at the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but I get the same satisfaction there. And it seems like such an innocent question, too. Something contractual, I gather. Don’t those photographers have vegetable portfolios? Wouldn’t they want to shop their talents? I also ask if any photography is done in-house. The bean lady who took my call would neither confirm or deny that possibility. Well, maybe it was a dumb question after all, an unnecessary bother to an employee just trying to push seeds and make it through the day.

These seed catalogs all use the same format to hawk their wares: alphabetical order, from Artichokes to Watermelon. (Don’t be fooled: Zucchini is a Squash.) I’m not afraid to take a chance on seeds from New England. Who knows…some year we may have an actual summer here in the Valley. And I like to try something new every year, whether it be a new variety of tomato or some other crop I haven’t tried. As often as not, your experiment ends in failure. (Those “ripe when they’re green” variety tomatoes—in this country! Shame on me; I should know better.) I’ve tried peanuts, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and those yard-long string beans and all I got for my efforts was more exercise weeding. Mixed results with other crops: okra, which requires warm nights (Ha! In the Valley??)…enough for one batch of Shreveport gumbo. Dent (field corn) corn…destination: hominy. I had maybe a dozen ears mature this season. And the hominy? I’d advise a hazmat suit and work area at the Hanford Nuclear site. That lye is dangerous stuff. Pouring it in boiling water is like tossing gasoline on a fire. My first (and last) attempt yielded four pints of “very tender” hominy, a scored glass surface on the kitchen range, a countertop that has permanent white lines spider-webbed in the surface, and an entire day lost. You know, you can buy hominy at the grocery store for sixty cents a can…. The pole lima beans? If Mother Nature doesn’t leave town like she did this past summer, I think I could get a decent yield for a big batch of lima beans and ham, enough, anyway, for at least one trip to the ER.

What’s new for this year? Burpees has a white pickling cucumber. Just think, jars of albino pickles that look like pickled eggs. And, you know, I’ve always wanted to grow one of those giant pumpkins, one of the big quarter ton jobs just to see if there’s enough room for such a behemoth on one slim acre. This may just be the year. Yeah, it just might….

And the photos for this post? They’re mine. I took them. It’s no secret. I’m not under contract or anything. And I certainly have nothing to hide.Peppers C

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