Diane Dryden: 'Plant and Seed Catalogs; Scourge or Inspiration?'
I'm a gardener. I've been a gardener ever since my devious father tricked me into liking vegetables when he helped me with my very first garden which was just a small plot in the backyard.
"We" chose vegetables as our crop. Dad's reason for planting the veg was simple; no one grows flowers in rows, and everyone grows vegetables in a garden. It was dodgy thinking, but I bought it because my dad said it and I was five or six years old. I couldn't argue with that kind of adult logic. Thanks to him I've spent my life having a love affair with all kinds of gardens.
When dad mentioned planting peas, all I could think of were the ones typically served from a can; mushy, slightly gray and dumped in a bowl. I still think the canned ones are still disgusting but fresh from the garden? Amazing. The pods too.
Now it’s the seed catalogs that drive me crazy.
Remember those long January and February days of yore when, one day, along with the regular mail, came a colorful booklet offering the latest plants and seeds? Nothing helped with the cabin fever that was mounting as the winter dragged on and on better than a slow peruse through the thick catalog of enticing photos. Every page was full of photos of the fully grown plant in all its beauty along with euphoric descriptions of the new cultivars.
A wish list would be started, corn, broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, another new variety of tomatoes, and maybe this was the year to grow some of those new heirloom tomatoes with their purple, orange or yellow fruit.
A week later the list would change with add-on varieties and a few things crossed off, mainly those seeds that were easier to buy as plants rather than seeds from the local greenhouses.
Speaking of seeds, the companies were always too generous with their package sizes, so plentiful that gardeners found themselves trying to share extra seeds with everyone they knew; after all, to throw extra seeds away would be tantamount to plant genocide.
By March the official order blank would finally be finished and on its way with a check enclosed. Now to perfect the new planting chart, some years following the companion planting scheme, some years planting by height or based on when certain vegetables became ripe.
Either way, the plants were ordered, the planting scheme ready and all there was to do was to wait and dream.
Those were the old days. They are no more.
Now the seed catalogs come several times during the year, and one has to ask themselves, why? Especially irritating are the ones that come out in November when and the summer's harvest is finally over, and the fruit and vegetables are sleeping peacefully in the freezers or standing guard in the pantry.
The garden is finished, and gardeners are glad of it; no more weeding or harvesting or processing all that produce you just had to plant. No more running into town for more sugar for jam, no more buying of lids and rings and pectin.
It's time to rest. My opinion of the fall catalogs is that they should be immediately thrown away so I can forget about summer and spend my time getting ready for the upcoming holiday season.
Okay, after saying that, I will give way to the catalogs of fall bulbs that come in late summer, bulbs needing to be planted before the snow flies. But this year the spring bulb catalogs are beginning in June and July. July, when there are endless berries to be picked and made into jam and the pea pods, green onions, radishes, and lettuce are bearing at full peak with so many other crops to follow in close procession, who has time or energy for spring bulbs?
After all, it's the hottest time for gardening, which doesn't bring out the best in the tillers of the soil who often come in from the garden in a cranky mood. You have to wonder if there is anyone goes to their mailbox on a scorching summer's day and says with enthusiasm, "Wow, look, a seed catalog!"
Granted, the colorful catalogs that arrive this time of year usually touts the colorful spring bulbs, but even if you do order, you can't plant them for a few more months anyway, unless they're iris, which is one of the few flowers that do well if transplanted mid-summer.
Taking a closer look at some recent catalogs, if you have time to read the small print, it might say - PLEASE NOTE: Though the tags that arrive with your plants may list them as Zone 5 hearty, in our experience, they are generally hardy in Zone 4, especially in areas with good winter snow cover. Huh?
Evidently, they are counting on gardeners just picking out their spring bulbs by their colorful photos and not reading the print underneath. Even if they did read the script, what exactly does that statement about zone 5 and zone 4 mean? Anymore, who can predict what kind of snow coverage we'll get during the winter? So order or not?
Even worse than the catalogs with the double-speak are the plants at the big-box stores. If people who are new to gardening and do not read the tags or don’t do a quick bit of research before they buy that gorgeous shrub, they won’t notice that the tag, in small print way at the bottom, mentions ever so casually, that the plant is rated for zone 10; think Florida, Texas, and any of the Caribbean Islands.
I’m sure the people who live way down south are thrilled to have this plant in their yard, but too many northern gardeners here in zone 2/3 are disappointed when the plant dies. Take it back to the store, receipt in hand and they will tell you it was winter kill, duh, and not refund your money.
Gardeners and farmers and the new hoop-house growers are still the backbone of the world's food crop. Not only are we watching for the bees, from bumbles to honey and Mason's, but we're watering and pruning and covering our crops in the hope of a good harvest.
We fight off the new pests that appear each year, and we are diligent in our pursuits. During the height of the battle, we do not need a seed catalog or a catalog of amazing spring blooms sent out in July.
Gardening is America's number one past time, you would have thought it was shopping, and we are manipulated enough into buying more seeds and plants than we can use, so fellow plantsmen, rise up and say no to the many seed companies across the United States, even if they've been in business for over one hundred years, to withhold their fire until the fall for the spring bulbs and to wait for a bitter, snowy winter day before they send out their main catalogs.
That’s when we’re most vulnerable.