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Savoring Seed Catalogs

Mom, where do tomatoes come from?”

“Well, honey, it all starts in March when Mommy and Daddy sit very close to each other, reading the seed catalog.”

That’s how Joe and Paul, two friends of ours from the Evanston (Ill.) Farmers Market, tell the story of the genesis of tomatoes.

We’ve all heard of glossy “food porn,” but seed catalogs and seed websites are just as seductive, beckoning with bright pictures of fetching red ruffled lettuces and juicy melons of every description.

What appears to non-gardeners as an immaculate conception is, in fact, more down and dirty — but in a good way. There’s nothing for the seed addict to be ashamed of — quite the opposite. With some planning and plotting, time and tending, the vegetable fantasies on the page turn into vegetable realities that are inexpensive, nutritious and delicious.

Katharine White, a fellow seed catalog addict, wrote in “Onward and Upward in the Garden” that “snow is falling … and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.”

Snow is indeed falling in the Midwest as I write, but spring is not far behind. If you haven’t already, now is the time to make your planting plans, whether for a pot of basil on the window sill, or a few tomatoes near the house, or a full-fledged garden that will keep you in vegetables from May through October and beyond, if you have a chest freezer.


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Both the beet roots (golden beets in this case) and the beet greens are tasty -- and a row of beets can feed a family all season, especially if you do successive plantings. Terra Brockman.

Those priceless homegrown tomatoes

For the past few years, starting around the time Michelle Obama planted the White House garden, through Stephen Colbert’s “crisis garden” and Jamie Oliver’s school lunch reality show, the buzz has only increased as chefs, parents and kids have gotten involved in healthy local-food growing. Today, vegetable seeds and starts are a hot commodity and community gardens, home gardens and school gardens have become a growth industry.

There are as many reasons to “grow your own” as there are gardeners — from rising grocery store food prices to personal health to food independence. But sooner or later all the good reasons boils down to one. Taste. The choice between a backyard tomato you grow yourself and one from the grocery store is no choice at all. As Guy Clark famously sang:

There’s only two things that money can’t buy.

That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.

But, as Shakespeare noted, the course of true love never did run smooth. Seed catalogs are beautiful things, and like many such things, dangerous. There are so many luscious and delectable vegetables, but so little time and space. How can one possibly choose between the Genovese basil, Napoletano, Italian large-leaf (“a sweeter pesto type with high yields”), or SuperBo (“NEW! Ideal example of classic Italian basil.”) And that’s not even looking at all the lemon basils, Thai basils, purple basils, amethyst improved, Ararat, dark opal, osmin purple, red rubin, purple ruffles and more. Who can possibly resist a purple-podded shelling pea? Egyptian walking onions? Or the tomato known as mortgage lifter?seed packets are trending up with the locally grown industry

Luckily, the seed companies are responding to the analysis paralysis that so many choices can engender by providing how-to sections in catalogs and videos on websites. Some also offer preselected variety packages with time-tested favorites that are delicious and easy for beginners to grow.

Let local farmers guide your picks

But the very best way to choose your varieties is to ask a nearby experienced gardener or farmer. If you’ve had mind-blowing muskmelons from a local farmer, ask that farmer what he plants, and when, and how.

Some farmers, such as my sister Teresa, are now providing customers not only with the final fruit or vegetable, but with the opportunity to grow some of their own. Teresa put annotations about the special qualities of each variety, including notes on 66 types of tomatoes, up on her website. This year she’s offering starts including heirlooms, hybrids, plums, cherries and container-suitable varieties.

While many first-timers come to gardening when they tire of the poor quality of produce in the store, just as many come from economic pressures. As fossil fuel prices rise, food prices will continue to increase. And when artificially cheap processed foods are more affordable than nutrient-dense whole fruits and vegetables, the only recourse is to take matters into your own hands, and into your own backyard.

A $10 investment in seeds can yield many hundreds of dollars worth of vegetables a month for many months. A few tomatoes easily cost $2 to $3. For the same price, you can get a package of tomato seeds to plant a long row of tomatoes that will provide bushel upon bushel of luscious fruits all summer long. If you’re not ready for an avalanche of tomatoes, you can get one or two tomato starts, put them in big pots on your sunny porch or patio, and have plenty (but not too many) tomatoes for salads and sandwiches.

The same $2 to $3 that gets you a few sprigs of fresh basil in a clam shell will get you a packet of basil seeds and a long, aromatic row of basil plants for pesto year-round, plus plenty of large bunches to give to friends and neighbors. If you don’t have room for a whole row of basil, buy one basil start, put it in a large pot, and pinch off leaves for Caprese salads and bruschetta all season long.

Similar cost savings come whether you buy carrot seeds, lettuce seeds or tomato seeds. But it’s not so much the immediate cost-savings as the long-term investment. Unlike any other investment you’ve been involved in, the returns from this one can be braised, broiled, sautéed or served raw. And those returns bring further returns in the form of health and well-being.

In addition to the taste and nutrition, you have full control over the entire process — from what varieties you plant, to what chemicals are used (or not) for weed and insect control, to what conditions the workers labor under. And if those workers are your kids, they’ll learn where food really comes from. Which, by the way, is partially, but not entirely, from mommy and daddy sitting very close together on the couch.

Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Photos from top:

Seedlings ready to transplant to the garden.

Seed packets.

Credits: Terra Brockman

Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.