Every essay I've ever read on the subject celebrates the arrival of spring seed catalogs with perfect emotional abandon - the kind of welcome normally reserved for visiting royalty. And truth to tell, I feel it, too. Especially in a place like Maine, with an insistent winter that seems to pronounce - sometimes well into April - "I'm here to stay."
The seed catalogs, in fact, are the first auger of spring up here. In March the snow is still thigh-deep, the nights descend with the finality of theater curtains, and the wind cuts as if punishing us for the simple act of choosing to live here. Is it any wonder that a seed catalog, with its kaleidoscopic explosions of coreopsis, wisteria, and pansies, is embraced like a long-lost relative when it arrives?
A seed catalog is a collection of pictures (often out-of-focus), but it is also a promise. That all those little Shasta daisy seedlings on Page 4 are already growing in some distant greenhouse, ready to be delivered when the soil warms and the days lengthen. Perusing a seed catalog until the pages are as worn and limp as old dollar bills is infinitely more comforting than, say, a travel brochure for the Caribbean. In contrast to the latter, the seed catalog has no small print, no hidden charges. And to provide for a modest garden - as opposed to packing for a trip to the islands - takes only a modicum of effort. For three bucks one can buy enough annual flower seed to make one's desert blossom like a rose. Or your money back.
Of all the seed catalogs that propagate in my mailbox and take root on the coffee table, there is one that stands out among the rest. This is the Gurney's catalog. A gardener who says he has not heard of Gurney's is either kidding, is not really a gardener, or has no mailing address. Where other catalogs sell exactly what they tout - seeds and seedlings - Gurney's is a veritable emporium of miscellany, some of it only tangentially related to horticulture.
The list is breathtaking: boots, juicers, grain grinders, ornamental windmills, plastic owls (to frighten birds away), tool sharpeners, hybrid worms (for soil aeration), and, if my memory serves me, a home haircutting kit (a form of pruning, no?). Throw in the testimonials from satisfied customers ("Blackberries as big as your fists!"), and the allure of the catalog is irresistible.
I have found that the Gurney's catalog has a devoted following among Northern gardeners - those individuals who tend small plots with a ferocity born of an all-too-short growing season. A man I knew in another part of Maine once threw his accountant out of his home because he had disparaged the Gurney's catalog. Such is the allegiance it inspires.
But I digress. As I said at the outset, the encomiums heaped upon seed catalogs are a rite of spring in themselves. It is at this juncture that I would like to point out that there is also tragedy. It is the tragedy brought on by a combination of neophyte gardening and zealous seed-catalog advertising.
I'm talking about the plants touted as being "Good for the North!" or "Absolutely cold hardy!" It is said that post offices across the northern tier of states become depositories for dead or dying seedlings and saplings that are either en route to those who ordered them or on their way back to the seed companies. This points up how easy it is to seduce a customer into believing that a flower associated with the tropics might actually have a chance in Duluth, Minn.
I fell victim to this mind-set myself once. Many years ago, as a beginning gardener, I saw a seed catalog in which a peach tree was promoted for the "far north." It was celebrated in print as a revolutionary advance that would enable northern growers to enjoy the same largess as the sun-baked folk of Georgia.
Well, I ordered the whip and planted it with loving care. All through the spring and summer it flourished, and I even got a few flower buds that very first growing season. Then came the Maine winter, and the thing shriveled into something resembling kindling.
Such failures are hard on the beginner, because there is a tendency to blame oneself when something doesn't grow. I think the seed companies stake their success on the willingness of customers to question their own green thumbs when a plant doesn't "take," and although their stock is always "guaranteed," how many gardeners will dig up a failed fig tree and ship it back?
For this reason I have more than once sworn that I would buy only locally grown stock. I generally hang onto this resolution through the fall and winter. Then spring arrives, and with it another avalanche of seed catalogs, replete with testimonials from satisfied customers ("We hit the jackpot with this zucchini crop!"). And where else can I get Carolina Cross No. 183 watermelon seeds, promising fruits in excess of 200 pounds?
I try to resist, I really do. It's just that I have little control over my hand as it gropes for the checkbook, and before I know it I am once again dreaming of peaches in Maine.