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The Rites Of Spring : Plotting Spring

March 16, 1995|KAREN STABINER

I let the garden go during the winter, so by March it is a clumpy field of incorrigible alyssum and scrawny dandelions, of blackened and bent cornstalks and bully crabgrass.

Every time I walk into the back yard, that 15-by-20-foot plot of chaos calls out to me, and it always says the same thing: "Why bother?"

Right. Why bother? The first time I planted a vegetable garden, back in 1977, it was in revolt against agribusiness--no pesticides, no long trips in a refrigerator truck, no chemical ripening agents. But that was before the advent of natural-food markets and the trend toward organics.

Now I can go to a farmers' market less than five minutes from my house and have my choice of just-picked organic produce. I prefer buying lettuce from that nice blonde woman with the sunny smile, but if she's not around, there are three other stands selling organic greens. Even the supermarkets stock them.

Any rational explanation for growing your own seems, at this point, just that: a rationale. It's no longer necessary.

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Ah, but it is. I knew it as soon as the Shepherd's seed catalogue arrived in the mail. Planting a garden is only peripherally about the product. It is, instead, about the process. I will make just the sort of arrogant claim that I hate hearing from people who swear they know the best way to do something: If you really want to taste something, grow it. By the time that green bean becomes history, you're on intimate terms. And it's true--it does taste better.

Moreover, what's happened along the way is that all your senses have gotten involved. You get to see the pale-green curve of a seedling poke through the dirt the day before it has the strength to support the sprouted seed. You get to smell the leaves of tomato plants and wonder whether the green bean plant in the middle will have creamy yellow blossoms, like the one to its right, or deep fuchsia blooms, like the one to its left.

By the time our strawberries ripened last summer, Sarah, then 4 1/2, faced an emotional quandary: How could she eat something she considered a friend? One day I wandered outside and overheard her talking to the strawberry that sat in her tiny palm. Eventually they reached an understanding: She and the strawberry, given their longstanding relationship, could still be friends even after she ate it.

And that, without getting into issues of vegecide and the sound a carrot makes as it's yanked from the earth, is how it should be. Gardening breeds affection and respect.

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It also lets you move about in time and space. I settle down with the Shepherd's catalogue the way some people nestle in with a good novel. Seeds have changed since the days when my parents bought a packet of generic tomato seeds so that my sister and I could have the pleasure of growing our own (and be temporarily distracted from the messier, long-term commitment of having a dog). Buying seeds today is like taking a trip: I may not be in a position to move to Italy tomorrow, but I can transform part of the back yard into that fantasy.

I always turn to the tomatoes first, perhaps a nod to my boring beefsteak past. This year I am caught, right off, by a black-and-white drawing of the Costoluto Genovese, an Italian heirloom seed. This tomato is big and ridged, built with scalloped edges that defy the right angles of sandwich bread. To eat one of these is clearly to ingest culinary history. One packet.

But look. The Carmello, from France. Heavy, juicy, and here's the dealmaker: "As Carmello tomatoes don't ship well, this variety has not previously been imported here." Yes. We can grow tomatoes that aren't surrounded by a half-inch of tomato-colored Styrofoam. Sarah likes to eat tomatoes out of hand, like peaches; this sounds perfect. One packet.

And how can we live without the Milano sauce tomato? Reason rears its ugly head and whispers that a working mother rarely has time to make sauce from scratch, but remember, we are in a food movie here. Bertolucci. Saturated color. The image would be incomplete without those sturdy, pear-shaped Milanos crowding a couple of vines. One packet.

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Oh, and one envelope of the Golden Pearl cherry tomatoes--the ones grown in the California wine country for restaurant chefs.

Anyone who has ever planted anything knows that I'm edging toward my physical limit. If I plant a half-dozen of each variety, I'm up to the sidewalk in tomatoes. Take into account our three-foot wide rosemary bush, assorted herbs, last year's Sequoia strawberries, the two wild strawberries I ordered bare-root three years ago and the green bean tepee (three poles lashed together; the vines grow up and make a nice tent), and a sane person would stop reading.

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