Seed catalog
ARI LEVAUX, for Lee Montana Newspapers

As another crop of seed catalogs arrives in the mail, my thoughts turn to summer's garden. And usually, at about that time, I remember the words of Tim Cahill.

In the introduction to a book of adventure stories called "Jaguars Ripped my Flesh," the writer from Livingston wrote:

"I am a man who sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people peruse seed catalogs or accounts of classic chess games."

As a peruser of seed catalogs myself, I appreciate being lumped together with the chess nerds and the mountain men. It suggests that gardening, like chess or being lost in the wilderness, is a matter of survival. And if you want to be good at any of these pursuits you have to put in work during the off season. 

In my unbiased opinion, successful gardeners must hold within them the best characteristics of both chess master and woodsman, combining the patience of the former and the endurance of the later, possessing the survivalist’s intimate knowledge of the landscape while thinking many moves ahead.

But while gardening could be about survival, like the others, that’s not really why we do it. We do it because gardening is a full-contact grappling contest with nature, with with the bees and the rain and the weeds and the dirt. We do it because it feels like the thing to do. For me, the garden feels like a place for whimsy, creativity and relaxation. It’s more about fun than production. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I’m growing flowers or anything. I only mess around with edibles.

Whatever your precise goals may be, it's important to be clear about your expectations. Especially now, when you have a bunch of seed catalogs spread before you. So before you go crazy, make a plan. Brew that cup of coffee, and think many moves ahead.

I like to simplify things by skipping any plants that need to be started inside. I’m done with using a sunny windowsill to start my tomatoes. Unless you have a real grow space and the proper gear, starting seeds indoors is a losing proposition. Your tomato seedlings probably will be an embarrassment compared to the greenhouse-grown beauties you could have purchased at the farmers market.

I've got a small stable of growers from whom I buy tomato plants, farmers who grow beautiful specimens of interesting varieties that produce delicious, eclectic crops through the summer. These are not tomatoes with which I make the sauce that fills my freezer, but juicy nets for catching some fleeting, lovely moments of summer. Sliced with oil, vinegar, salt and a few basil leaves, perhaps. Or gobbled whole straight off the vine.

The tomatoes for my freezer will be purchased months later, also at the farmers market, when you can buy them by the box for a good price.

The only thing I grow in large enough quantities to store is garlic. The rest of the garden, I plant to eat. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and peas for the kids, bitter greens and basil for the adults.

All of these can be ordered from a seed catalog and planted directly, without having to be grown inside. Climbing plants like beans, planted next to a fence or sunflowers, are a no brainer to me. But then, I’m the type of gardener who will throw seeds by the handful toward empty spots in the garden, so plants that can climb out of the resulting jungle have a special place in my heart. While some people keep their gardens neat and orderly, my garden is where I relish a bit in the fruits of chaos. But it’s also a place for trying new things. Like planning ahead.

I will leave you with a recipe for PastaPestoPrego, which I developed in college. It’s a glimpse at what you can make if you plan ahead.

Your job is to order basil seeds, because basil is so damn expensive and easy to grow you really should. Order a big bag and plant them everywhere. After the threat of frost has passed, throw them at the garden. And plant them inside, too. Forget what I said about growing things inside. Basil is easy.

With your garden fresh basil and tomatoes, make PastaPestoPrego all summer long. In fall, buy bulk quantities of tomato and basil and make a winter stash of tomato sauce and pesto.

PastaPestoPrego leverages the little-known fact that one needn't choose between pesto and red sauce, as they go great together. On top of that, this recipe manages to push most any button that a 20-year-old might possess, including the likes of noodles and cheese, and capable of such large servings.

But it wasn't just the satisfaction it delivered that made the meal legendary on the dorm block. It was the sheer speed and fluidity with which I could prepare it. And if the proverbial pesto and Prego are in place in your freezer, you can too.

Back in the day, the pesto I used was purchased in a little plastic tub, and the Prego (or Ragu) came in a jar. Today, my "Prego" is a stack of quart freezer bags filled with oven-roasted tomato sauce in my freezer, while pesto, similarly frozen, only consists of basil, salt and oil. I add the nuts, garlic and cheese when I’m cooking.

Whatever else you have on your plate, be it a game of chess, a surprise encounter with a grizzly bear, or trying to plan your seed order, having a belly full of PastaPestoPrego will give the energy you need to have a fighting chance.

But remember, while students of chess and wilderness survival look to history for guidance, perusers of seed catalogs must look forward, focused on what is new and hitherto unknown. (Yeah, pineapple strawberries, I'm talking to you.)

Or focused on things that, for whatever reason, are less available on the open market, like radicchio.

The garden is a reflection of yourself. It’s also a tool for self-improvement. It can be whatever you need it to be. And now is the time to start figuring out what that is.

PastaPestoPrego

Ingredients:

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Big pot of boiling water

Half an onion, minced

Two garlic cloves, pressed, grated or minced

Pesto (basil, garlic, hard cheese, olive oil, nuts; all pulverized)

Red sauce (tomatoes, onions, wine, oregano. You know, red sauce.)

Cheese, such as Parmesan or Romano

Ground meat (optional)

Directions:

Get the pasta water going. Quickly chop half an onion and put in in a pan with olive oil with oregano on medium. Add meat if using. Cook until delicious. Season as necessary.

Add noodles to boiling water.

Add red sauce to pan when the meat and onions are ready.

When noodles are done to your liking, drain them and toss with olive oil and minced garlic. This, right here, is the most important trick you need to know about pasta: The garlic will cook in the hot oiled noodles and the house will smell amazing.

Then stir in the cheese and pesto. Finally, toss in the red sauce. Add more grated cheese, if necessary, and proceed to eat until it hurts.

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