With Catalog on my knee

Candlemas was always just about right for the new seed catalogs, but this perennial promise of joy to come in the tillage was dissipated this year by a premature barrage. I suspect collusion, because not only did Burpee come on Boxing Day, but so did Park and Harris and Vesey and a couple of newcomers I never heard of before. There they are, luxuriously abundant in the RFD, tomatoes and cucumbers and petunias and marigolds, and the calendar had not yet worried away enough of the winter so this made sense. February is better; by Candlemas the customer has been lulled by cold and snow and shipped- in produce so he is rarin' to respond. There is a time to sow and a time to reap and a time to send away for seeds.

I could look it up, but it was some years ago that I did a paean here for the beauty of the seed catalog, and lamented that Allen, Sterling & Lothrop had decided to discontinue their annual catalog because printing costs and higher postage drained their resources. Mr. Allen and Mr. Sterling were before my time , but I knew Harry Lothrop and he gave me good care in the years we traded. He remained our resident Maine seedsman, and maintained his store in the heart of downtown Portland, just off Monument Square. It was a fine experience to step off Portland's Federal and Middle Streets into Mr. Lothrop's place, leaving the city bustle to mingle with rutabagas and snapdragons in an aroma of phosphate and Black Leaf Forty. It was like a weekend in the country, and we farmers who came in to get two bushels of rosen rye seed became aware of that expression city people take on when they get the urge to go bucolic and need a packet of lobelia.There they would be, dreamy-eyed, standing in their imagination up to their ears, and Mr. Lothrop would be looking down from his little elevated office with the smile of a prosperous man who takes his exercise by walking to the bank.

Mr. Lothrop's business moved, after it came into the possession of new owners , and is now in a suburb where parking space is generous, and it is little more than another green thumb store where things are packaged in the sterile manner of a new day. That part of Portland has been urban-renewed completely out of its socks, and I am unaware of any downtown emporia where the dreamy-eyed Portlandite can step in to sniff fertilizer and pick up his radish seeds. I went into the new store last spring to ask for some white sweet pea seeds, and a lovely young lady most stylishly attired tole me if I couldn't find any in the rack they didn't have them. They didn't, or at least I couldn't. I miss Mr. Lothrop.

But the new owners, soon after they took over and before they moved, announced that the spring seed catalog would be discontinued. They would continue to carry the usual seeds and related items, and they do. Meantime, all the other seed catalogs that bless the public seem to proliferate and fructify, and printing costs and postage seem to be no hindrance. The tomatoes are bigger and redder, the melons are juicier and earlier, and the superlatives have hit the sweetcorn. Mr. Burpee seems increasingly enthusiastic, and I assume there is some purpose in his new mailing date. I've been wondering if the Allen, Sterling & Lothrop decision wasn't a mistake.

I did not react to the new catalog date, if any of the seedsmen care to know how I feel. I put the catalogs on the shelf in my shop which accomodates my digital steeple clock, and beside which I hang the calendar from the Rockland Boat Company. They are thus synchronized with time, and when the time is ripe I shall take them down and enjoy the annual delight that comes with making out seed orders. Such is the schedule of these delightful dispatches that I shall probably have come to that moment while the editors and printers are doing their part. If, that is, it is now Candlemas, or close by, you can picture me before the open fire, catalog on my knee, with the bemused expression that goes with the tomato question -- Big Girl or Floramerica? To buy or not to buy. Do I seem to smell phosphate?

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