The Beginning of the Gardener’s Year
They start arriving during the holiday season, squished in with the endless toy sale coupons, credit card bills, and the rare Christmas card. The catalog covers are bursting with wholesome goodness, though a true gardener knows the truth – you’ll never get botox tomatoes or porcelain perfect rosebuds in your garden without the use of massive amounts of toxic treats. That aside, their luscious covers stay my hand as I’m about to toss them in the recycling pile. Over the next month or two my bathroom will become the resting place for an ever-increasing pile of plant and seed catalogs. This is for strategic perusal during a moment of privacy in the manic holiday season.
By mid-January, when the deer have eaten their way through anything left sticking up out of the snow, and all hope of a shrubbery is growing dim, I get those first twinges. I feel an urge to see seed trays cluttering up the windowsills and kitchen table. I start feeling wistful for that warm place under the kitchen sink– the perfect spot for cozy, dark, moist germination. I’m feeling the drag of winter, and the hopeful swaying towards spring. Winter in the Northeast lays down heavily from January through February and into March, and then teases through April. But I’m beginning to sense the latent promise of the soil.
The catalogs are dragged out of the bathroom and piled by the couch. On brittle winter evenings, by lamplight, I start the long slow sift. Of course, it’s all about fantasy, little will actually be bought. Gardeners have to dream at this time of year: the perfect herb garden springing up amidst neat mounds of box wood and crunchy gravel, a rustic arbor overflowing with grape vines and late summer roses. Perhaps this year there’ll be a woodland bower with trickling stream and dappled shade flowers. With the back of an old envelope I go to work on the grand scheme.
Once I have perused the warty old heirloom vegetables in the organic catalogs, and the glossy offerings from the established old nurseries and fallen in love with some exotic vine from Peru that will never survive in my deer-infested garden, I pass them on to the children to cut-up for school projects. Those genetically modified tomatoes go right at the top of the food chain. In a Martha Stewart-inspired moment I have cut and pasted a rose garden full of gift tags.
I have a weakness for the cheapo catalogs, printed on wafer thin paper and bursting with special offers and 1¢ marvels. The crudely touched up photographs and the neon colors jump off the page at you. I especially love the cheesy photos of children dressed in ‘70’s outfits and sitting atop giant pumpkins with bemused smiles on their faces. I think my all-time favorite was a bonnie baby clutching a sweet pepper as big as its head with the title “Super Heavyweight Hybrid”. Some of the offerings are intriguing – a fruit cocktail tree straight out of “Willy Wonka” which bears plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots. While others are just plain scary. Surely the ‘Hairy Giant Starfish Flower” comes from outer space.
There is no such thing as too big or too sweet in the vocabulary of the people who write the copy for the vegetable and fruit catalogs. They seem to have a passion for words such as “Juicy”, “Smooth”, and “Delicious”. And then of course there are the names – “Fat “n” Sassy”, Mammoth Melting Sugar, Magnifisweet, Delectable, Phenomenal, Serendipity, Love-Me-Tender and Florida Speckled Butter. How could one not succumb? My success rate from these cheap and cheerful orders is about the same as from the much grander (and more expensive) nurseries. Which only goes to prove that I can kill cheap or expensive plants equally well.
Once I’ve reigned in my ambitions and placed my modest order all I have to do is sit back and wait for that freak 80˚ day in April when the dear UPS man will roll up in his van. Of course the garden will be untilled – a quagmire of spring mud. The tender plantlings will languish in a shady corner of my mudroom for several days. Insistent birdcalls staking claim to sections of the garden will get me out of bed at 6am. With fork in hand I’ll brave a light frost and watery sunshine to start the backbreaking work of turning over the soil in the perennial garden and the vegetable patch. Large clods of earth held together with ice crystals get turned over and left to sunbathe.
Hours later, I’ll waddle, with bent back, to the aptly named mudroom, my boots coated in a gelatinous layer. The next day, if there isn’t a late season snowstorm I’ll plant the baby leeks and get the first sowing of peas in. I’ll look down and notice that the paper I grabbed to put under my muddy boots is last season’s plant catalog.