We dreamed of bursting lettuce and bounding beets

THE annual order of garden seeds is at hand from the seed people. Well over 50 years have passed since I got any free seeds from my congressman, and I can see the time has surely come for this pleasant political plum to be revived. Right now I would be glad to see about anything he could send, except okra, and am in a mood to promise my support, approving his pol-icies whatever they may be. Have you looked this year to see how the professional seedsmen are imposing their accursed thirst for gold on the hapless husbandman? Not only has the price per pkt soared, but the pkt, now, has only 20 seeds. I never knew why the congressional free-seed program was ditched in the ever-forward course of the Republic, but it was a stupid thing to do and proves that our Ship of State is not always steered by the wisest of mariners.

Few of the backyard gardeners who till today are as venerable as I, and most may not know that in the good old days many a congressman was returned term after term because he was faithful with garden seeds at this time of year. He was perhaps lame on domestic policies and didn't know if Peru was in Europe or Europe was in Peru, but so long as his package of free seeds came while the tag end of winter was lingering on the frozen glebe, he was secure at the hustings and could safely renew his lease on a Washington flat.

Many a dreary evening we would sit by the fire fondling the little envelopes, waiting for the season to break up, dreaming of bountiful harvests -- thinking how the carrots would sprout and the lettuce would burst and the beets would bound. We would have kind thoughts for our congressman, even if he'd voted wrong on the harbor dredg-ing bill.

It is true as true can be that one summer Congressman Daniel J. McGilli-cuddy came with a rented horse and buggy from Eddie's Livery Stable to find how things went with my grandfather, and Gramps greeted him testily with, ``How come I got no seeds this time?'' Gramps was prosperous in those days and well able to buy all the seeds he wanted at the Farmers' Union, but that had nothing to do with anything.

Congressman McGillicuddy had failed in his obligations to his electorate. He tried to recover his balance and told Gramps the seeds must have got lost in the mail, so Gramps asked him why he didn't do something about the postal service. Congressman McGillicuddy was re-elected that fall, but he didn't carry our town. Gramps mentioned the seeds at a GAR meeting, and the comrades felt that if McGillicuddy couldn't be trusted with seeds, he might falter about pensions. Best to play things safe, and as Con-gressman McGillicuddy was far from a fool, our town got a double round of seeds the next spring.

In those times there were no hybrid seeds, which is something to consider. A farmer or home gardener could bring any of his vegetables along to maturity and save some seeds for next year. If other things were congenial, seeds went on indefinitely. But today, undoubtedly contributing to increased prices, the hybrid seeds need to be crossed and crisscrossed until the genes come out right, and nobody but the seedsman knows where to start.

I used to save a fine specimen of a tomato and squeeze the juicy seeds onto a shingle. The juice would dry, and come spring I'd pick off what seeds I wanted and start a flat. But here's a new seed catalog that just arrived, and it lists just one old-time standard tomato that will reproduce its own kind -- and that's a kind I wouldn't plant anyway. The same catalog lists 13 magnificent hybrid va-rieties that are excellent for everything except saving seeds. They won't ``throw true.'' Congressional seeds always threw true, and weren't that much of a drain on the public funds.

The pkts in which congressional seeds came were always marked ``Not For Sale.'' They were provided to con-gressmen by the United States Depart-ment of Agriculture, and I suspect they were bought in quantity from ordinary seedsmen who appreciated a small gov-ernment subsidy to carry them through the lean season. The congressmen, in turn, were generous with USDA funds. No other boondoggle ever pleased so many people or fed so many mouths as did the free-seed program. Nowadays, this time of year, we have no such lovesome thing as the gardens that bloomed in fantasy as we fondled our free congressional seeds.

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