Essay: Tempted by garden catalogs

It's hard to resist ordering too many flowers and vegetable plants from the latest garden glossies.

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    A sign of spring: Seedlings reach for the sunshine. Growing plants from seed makes winter go by faster for gardeners longing for warmer weather.
    Courtesy of Gardens Alive
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As a gardener, I routinely face the perils of bugs, bad weather, and blistering heat. But it's in midwinter that the gravest danger awaits.

It strikes insidiously as I snuggle beneath a billowy comforter with a mug of hot chocolate and stack of garden catalogs within easy reach.

Drooling over the colorful pages of titillating floral fantasies and voluptuous vegetables, I risk staggering credit-card bills and countless hours of labor if I abandon reason to base plant lust.

When mail-order shopping, think big; order small. I repeat this mantra daily until warm weather returns. But chanting is easier than resisting in the dank, dreary heart of a Midwestern winter.

My nose craves the crisp summer scent of tomato leaves. My fingers long to grasp a trowel and poke holes in soft brown soil. My arms yearn to push a wheelbarrow filled with flowers bound for new homes.

If I give in to excessive horticultural temptations, however, my cozy winter world goes topsy-turvy. The musty cellar will become a nursery. A row of fluorescent suns will shine two inches above trays of damp soil dotted with green pinpricks.

Eventually all windowsills and nearby tabletops will be covered with small potted plants, their spindly stems and leaves bending desperately toward the wan winter sun, begging for more light.

Long before spring returns, many will succumb to the woes of stem rot, overwatering, underwatering, or seismic catastrophe. (I've been known to upset cell packs and occasionally entire flats, with a careless move of watering can or free hand.)

Despite all this, a few toughies will reward my efforts and grow to transplanting size. They will be spoiled with extra care until they establish themselves firmly in the garden.

However, this Lilliputian garden under glass, which results from indiscretions with seed catalogs, pales next to the burden of guilt produced by wanton plant orders. When leafing through catalog pages of perennials, shrubs, and trees, I must exercise puritanical fiscal restraint and prudence – or suffer consequences that are literally staggering.

For if I don't say "no" often enough, legions of bare-root and potted horticultural specimens will be stuffed into UPS trucks and headed my way long before the soupy clay soil dries enough to prepare new beds for planting and move things around in existing borders to squeeze in more flora.

They will be billeted in the garage – possibly for weeks. They will decline as I struggle with an overwhelming list of spring labors and wedge in making a living and, with scant success, maintaining a personal life.

As hot chocolate dribbles down my chin, I take the order forms and quickly strike through the names of dozens of ravishing roses, dazzling daylilies, and astounding asters.

The lists are now smaller but still mean much extra work just ahead. Yet this is a small price for the scent of summer that rubs off little potted tomato plants on a late winter's day.

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