Letting other do the seed growing

Plants: Starting seeds was an act of faith, but the chores of modern life make buying plants a logical step.

February 13, 2000|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This year, in a fit of unaccustomed practicality, I decided that I will not start seeds indoors. In some respects, this was a no-brainer. The basic daily maintenance in country life -- barn, outbuildings, wood stove, canines, kids, vehicles, meals, laundry, cleaning (sort of), and work -- leaves very little time or energy for much else. And three weeks ago, we added two puppies to the mix. But while the decision to let go of my comforting annual ritual was logical, it was not easy.

Some of my favorite things -- tomatoes and peppers, especially -- need a jump-start on the season. By starting seed myself, I can cultivate the varieties I like best: large, thick-walled San Marzanos, which not only make rich spaghetti sauce but dry wonderfully; heirloom Rainbow tomatoes painted with a sunburst of yellow, orange, and pinky-crimson; Stella D'oro sweet peppers that gradually morph from a glorious orange to purple. But it's more than variety control. Planting flats in January is an act of faith -- that the tiny, inert seeds will miraculously come to life and bear fruit, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, spring will come.

The process is one of pleasurable discovery. I watch them grow in the kitchen on the table that my husband Gary built for the purpose, rejoicing at each new sprout, marveling at the visible difference in their growth between real sunlight and the full-spectrum artificial stuff.

While cooking supper, I can inspect each little seedling, and thin, clip, water, or encourage as needed. It's contemplative work, and for that reason renewing. But last year, I felt like a foster mother who should have been bumped out of the system. Overwhelmed with obligations, I was on the phone while cooking and left my seedlings to fend for themselves. The result was not pretty. And the guilt!

So this year, I decided to order plants, despite the gaps in variety, though the selection is better than it was. Not so long ago, the predominant tomato transplant offerings were Big Boy, Better Girl, and Jet Star. Now, there are dozens available as transplants, but still only a few of my favorites. Harris Seeds offers not only standard hybrid tomatoes, but heirlooms: Mr. Stripey, which is akin to Rainbow; Brandywine, renowned for its flavor; Cherokee Purple, and Orange Oxheart. I haven't yet found San Marzanos so may be confined to Roma VF as my sole canning variety. Romas, while flavorful, especially when cooked, are smaller than San Marzanos, which means more work in the kitchen's steamy, end-of-summer heat.

The leeks so far are summer harvest varieties, whereas I grow leeks for winter soups and stews. I pulled the last of the most recent crop at the end of January this year. Their outer leaves were like ill-preserved parchment, but the white flesh was still sweet.

Fortunately, there are close approximations of my pepper varieties, both hot and sweet.

Once I'd made peace with the potential substitutes, I was even a little relieved to let others do the initial growing -- until R.H. Shumway's catalog arrived. Faced with enticingly new (to me) chili peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and melons, I faltered. I toyed with planting just a few flats -- maybe one of German Strawberry tomato, which is shaped like a large strawberry and claims to be the quintessential sandwich tomato, perhaps another of Shumway's giant muskmelon, an early ripening "old-time" favorite that grows to be 25 pounds if properly tended, and maybe one each of Louisiana long green eggplant and Caribbean red peppers, which purport to be hotter even than habanero, a treat (or taunt) for an incendiary pepper loving friend.

But what really snagged me was the catalog itself, an appealing throw-back to the 19th century. Mostly black and white with finely etched engravings to illustrate each offering, the Shumway catalog echoes a time when families sat down together every evening, and weeks didn't speed by in nanoseconds. Suddenly, I could feel my resolve slipping.

For a few days, seduced by images of a less harried time, I considered starting a few Shumway seeds, irrationally hoping they would somehow infuse my life with an other-era rhythm. Then I returned to my senses. Antiquey illustrations, no matter how evocative, will no more simplify the days than exfoliant will erase the years. Although I habitually over-fill bowls, pots, schedules and life, I need to prune tasks, not add. So, since I can't lop off laundry, dishes, or car maintenance, I'll give up seed starting, at least for now.

In the process, I may even discover something better than San Marzanos.

SOURCES FOR PLANTS OR SEEDS

R.H. Shumway's

P.O. Box 1

Graniteville, SC 29829-0001 803-663-9771

Fax 888-437-2733 www.rhshumway.com (seeds only)

Piedmont Plant Co.

807 N. Washington St.

P.O. Box 424

Albany, GA 31702 800-541-5185

Fax: 912-432-2888 www.piedmontplants.com

Harris Seeds

60 Saginaw Drive

P.O.Box 22960

Rochester, NY 14692-2960 800-514-4441

Fax: 716-442-9386 www.harrisseeds.com

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