The Rites Of Spring : Plotting Spring

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.

But then a sane person would buy bunches of basil at the farmers' market. Not me. They're short plants. I can try the Napoletano and the Profumatissima, and maybe for color I'll plant some Red Rubin Purple Leaf. They can grow beneath the tomato and corn plants. . . . The corn plants. How could I forget? They did so well last year, on our first try, that we'll have to wedge in a few rows this year too.

By the time I get to the back of the catalogue, I can see it all clearly. It's early August. The sun has finally conquered the late night and early morning fog. We're sitting down to fresh corn, warm tomatoes slicked with a little olive oil, pasta with green beans and potatoes and pesto, and some strawberry sorbet (if we can keep our hands off the fresh ones long enough to build up the two pints we need). I defy you to contemplate that meal for too long without wanting a bite.

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And you needn't be intimidated at the notion of getting from here (ordering seeds) to there (eating your bountiful harvest). If you don't have a yard, you can plant strawberries, cherry tomatoes and herbs in pots. Wherever you plant, it isn't that hard: Truth is, a little benign neglect goes a long way in Southern California.

When I first started gardening I tried everything. Neat little rows. The French intensive method, which involved dirt plateaus surrounded by irrigation ditches. Drip irrigation.

Then, last spring, someone gave Sarah a packet of California wildflower seeds, which she immediately started tossing at the ground. I wanted to stop her--to explain that seeds won't grow unless you put them a quarter-inch beneath damp soil, water them, watch them, thin them, fertilize them. But I didn't want to wreck her self-esteem, so I kept my mouth shut. A few months later, we had a wonderful assortment of wildflowers.

So now I know: Order provides only the illusion of control. Blind enthusiasm will make many things grow.

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And in the annals of reckless abandon, being seduced by a seed catalogue is a pretty safe obsession.

STRAWBERRY SHERBET

This recipe from "Chez Panisse Desserts," by Lindsey Remolif Shere, is a nice compromise between the desire for dessert and a respect for a fresh strawberry's flavor. Not even cream gets in the way of the taste.

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

2 pints strawberries

Kirsch or framboise, optional

* Place sugar and water in saucepan. Boil 5 minutes. Then chill.

* Rinse, drain and hull berries. Puree in food processor or blender.

* Stir chilled syrup into puree. Add few drops of kirsch. Chill thoroughly. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.

Makes 1 quart, 8 servings.

Each serving contains:

88 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.42 gram fiber.

PASTA AND PESTO WITH POTATOES AND GREEN BEANS

Full-tilt pesto is ideal with boiled new potatoes and green beans. This recipe is based on the one in Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Italian Cooking," but the beans are steamed, not boiled, to keep them as close to fresh as possible.

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt

1/2 cup freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons freshly grated imported Romano cheese

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

3 small new potatoes

1/2 pound young green beans

1 1/2 pounds linguini, spaghetti or other pasta

* Rinse and thoroughly dry basil. Put basil through food processor with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt to taste. Process until creamy.

* By hand, stir in Parmesan and Romano cheeses. Stir in butter.

* In small pan boil potatoes. Then peel and slice thin. Snap ends off green beans. In pot steam until just tender. Drain.

* In pot cook pasta in boiling water just until al dente. Add 2 tablespoons cooking water to pesto, drain pasta. Toss with sauce and vegetables.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains:

730 calories; 292 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 93 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 0.89 gram fiber.

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