Yes, it’s that time of year, when gardeners are exposed to the seedy porn of nursery catalogs proffering a smorgasbord of earthy delights. Who among us can stifle our gardener’s urges and just say “no” to the marketeer’s voluptuous offerings? Just look at the pictures!
If leafy, green hope didn’t spring eternal in the human breast, gardeners would plant bok choy and potatoes and spend their days dreading dinner. But, no! We have pictures and prose to fire our dreams. Dreams fueled by sporadic success that tempts us farther into the woods (er, make that, out of the woods).
Nor is this a new temptation. Peter Loewer, a garden historian and Xpress contributor, devoted a full chapter of Jefferson’s Garden (Stackpole Books, 2004) to the seed biz. While farmers have bought and traded seeds since the rise of agriculture, and every European expedition to the Americas from Columbus forward carried seeds and collected specimens to cart home, consumer-seed markets emerged in the 18th century.
In Springfield, Mass., B.K. Bliss opened the first mail-order seed business in 1853. Bliss is credited with publishing the first catalog with color plates a few years later. Soon color illustrations were deemed so essential that when the Ferry Seed Co. published its catalog in 1886 without color plates, the reader opened to a disclaimer that accused other seed dealers of tempting customers “to purchase at exorbitant prices a few seeds of some untried novelty liable at least to result in failure and disappointment.”
At least! Probably broken marriages, business failures, fallen arches and the plunging of uncounted minions of distraught gardeners into the raging sea ensued as well. Hence the modern seed catalog, often front-loaded with untried novelties, arriving in the slough of winter’s despond, when the garden is brown and eyes thirst for color. Victoria’s Secret has nothing on the seed dealers when it comes to voluptuous models. Get a load of those blossoms!
But you will be strong. You will put your credit card back in your wallet and open your garden journal to the notes you took last September as the season was winding down. Now, peruse the little chart of doodles you mapped out of the year’s plantings, successes and failures. (You did take notes, didn’t you?) Did your tomatoes succumb to early blight? You need to order a blight-resistant variety and plant them in a different part of the garden this season. Did vine borers wipe out your winter squash? Maybe you’d be better off skipping squash (and other curcubits, or annual vining plants) entirely this year. Did your marigolds grow like mad? Don’t bother ordering seeds, because you’ll have more volunteer seedlings than you’ll know where to put.
This is a great time to ponder perennial flowers as well. True, a lot of the annuals offer splashy color, but perennials keep on giving. Come springtime, perennial plants are pricey items, but seeds are a real bargain. For 90 cents you can get enough digitalis (foxglove) seeds to ensure its permanent presence in your yard. The same is true of the coreopsis species, Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and numerous herbs.
In the midst of writing this essay, I was overcome with plant lust and placed an order online. Another order, actually. It’s been almost a week since my last online binge, and, oh, those Martian tomatoes (yes, a real name) look sweet.