by Chef Molly Beverly
A proper pandemic pantry needs seeds. To build a food supply that will get you through hard times, pandemics and climate change, you need seeds, and you need to learn how to use them to grow food, at least a little, and at best enough to be able to walk out your door and harvest something you can eat. Seeds are the starting point for your pandemic garden.
10 Easy-to-Grow Food Plants
Here's my list of the easiest-to-grow food plants for the Prescott area.
#1: Sunflowers – You can grow sunflowers from raw in-the-shell seeds that you buy to eat at the natural food store. They come up fast, easy and strong. If you don't plant anything else, plant a sunflower, because they will cheer you up and spitting sunflower-seed shells revives our childhood joy.
#2: Beans – Beans themselves are big seeds and come up quickly once frost has passed. There are bush and pole varieties. Pole beans need support and will gladly climb up the sunflower you are going to plant. Beans are a three-in-one package. They can be harvested as green pods (aka green beans), as green shell beans (when pods are stringy but the beans are fat, green and luscious), or as dry beans to be shelled and cooked or stored for next year's garden.
#3: Radishes and Salad Turnips – Radishes and their not-so-spicy cousin, the salad turnip, will give the impatient gardener the quickest reward. The seeds are small but they come up fast, like gangbusters, and then form nice crunchy roots in less than 30 days. Go for it!
#4: Summer Squash – Summer squashes include many varieties of zucchini — yellow, patty pan, crookneck, and green. They have big seeds and spring up with big leaves, powering into a hearty bush. Yellow varieties are easier to see; green squash hide among the foliage and, if you miss picking them, turn into squash monsters. Pick thet summer squash when they are young and tender. These plants will continue bearing from July until frost.
#5:Winter Squash – Winter squash (including pumpkins) have hard shells that protect flavorful, nutty meat. Large seeds are easy to plant, sprout quickly, and grow vigorously. They are creepy crawlers and will spill out of your garden beds onto the paths, or climb up a trellis. By fall the squash look like gourds, but inside they are rich in nutrients, orange, and sweet. In October they are fit for pies or storage for winter eating. My all-time favorite choice for reliability, taste, and best storage is the standard heritage variety, Waltham Butternut.
#6: Swiss Chard and Kale – Get those greens on! Swiss chard and kale are in different families, but have the same cut-and-come-again habit. Get them going and they just keep giving, even after a light frost in late October or November. You'll never want to buy chard or kale again when you see how easy they are to grow.
#7: Potatoes – Nothing is more delightful than growing potatoes. Instead of seed you plant chunks with eyes that sprout with vigor. It’s important to start with "certified seed potatoes" because potatoes may carry big, nasty diseases like scab, dry rot, or black scurf. Look for them in seed catalogs, online or in garden stores. A couple of months after planting you’ll be able to explore under the roots to harvest "new" potatoes, the best ever.
#8&9: Tomatoes and Peppers –What would a garden be without tomatoes and peppers? For beginners, start with plants, which are available just about everywhere in the spring. Cherry tomatoes and small sweet or hot chilies are the easiest and fastest to grow. Put them in pots on your porch and you'll be enjoying tomato or pepper gems all summer.
#10: Garlic – Anyone who knows me knows that garlic is my middle name. At one time Gary and I harvested 12,000 pounds for wholesale markets. That was long before the Prescott Farmer's Market existed. Now we harvest only 100 pounds a year. Chino Valley Silverskin is a true Prescott-heritage variety.
We have grown it for over 40 years, and we got our start from a gentleman whose father grew it here for 35 years before us. Chino Valley Silverskin has huge, fat cloves and keeps for up to a year, perfect for garlic-crazy cuisine. You can buy this locally adapted variety from Whipstone Farm. Thanks to Cory and Shanti Rabe for making it available to the public.
Garlic is planted in the fall after the rest of the garden has retired. Early October is good. Break up the heads into individual cloves, each clove makes a plant. Your garlic garden will sprout in the fall, hibernate through the winter, and start growing again as soon as spring warms the ground. By late June it will be bulbed up and ready for harvest. Don't miss your chance to grow this easy crop while you commune with the garlic fairy.
Harder to Grow
As a beginning gardener, here's what you should avoid and why:
• Carrots take up to 21 days to emerge and then they come up the size and delicacy of an eyelash.
• Corn requires a block of at least 20 plants to properly pollinate. If you have a 10x10’ bed dedicated for corn, go for it.
• Lettuce hates heat and dryness and needs special protection to grow here without getting bitter and tough.
• Cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower also hate our hot and dry climate. If you want to plant these crops, research hoop houses to shade the plants.
• Basil seed is so, so, so very tiny and so are their emerging leaves and they are so very delicate and so very sensitive. Beginners: buy a plant.
• Melons are tough. Look for a variety that will produce sweet fruits in our climate. I have grown a lot of beautiful yet flavorless melons, but I keep trying.
Help Is Available
Are you excited or scared? Gardens are not simple and a host of problems wait to crash your dream — soil, sun, disease, insects, gophers, javelina and hail. But Prescott is gearing up this year to help.
Join the Grow Food In Your Backyard program. Slow Food Prescott and Yavapai Extension Office Master Gardeners are partnering to help beginning gardeners with one-on-one, virus-safe mentoring for real garden success. Get advice, support and monitoring. Applications are taken in February or March. Send an inquiry to prescottAZ@slowfoodusa.org.
Get free seeds at the Prescott Farmer's Market Seed Exchange on Saturday, February 20, 10am-1pm at the Farmer's Market location on the hospital annex lot at 900 Iron Springs Road. Find the best varieties for the Prescott area, meet the growers and get growing advice.
Coming in March 2021 is the Seed Library at Prescott Public Library (co-sponsored by the Prescott Farmer's Market). You'll be able to check out seeds and growing information from the card catalog and website, just like books. Call the Prescott Public Library main line for more information: 928-771-1526. Watch for free online beginner classes from The Prescott Gardener, Janet Wilson. (More information at janetwilsongardens.com.)
For weekday help the Yavapai County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Help Desk offers free gardening advice, M-F 9am-noon and 1-4pm. 928-445-6590 x222
UofA Cooperative Extension Agent Jeff Schalau, online:
When this season is over, you’ll be eating food right out of your home garden, maybe just a radish, maybe a whole dinner. Most important is to get out there and put the seed in the soil. Start with the seed to build your pandemic-pantry connection.
I love seed catalogs and seed-company websites. You can dream over the pictures and enticing descriptions. The best parts are the detailed growing instructions, blogs and videos.
Johnny's Selected Seeds: johnnyseeds.com
Fedco Coop Seeds: fedcoseeds.com
Native Seed/Search: Tucson-based heritage seed conservation organization; nativeseeds.org
Terroir Seeds: local seeds and gardening advice from Chino Valley; underwoodgardens.com