“For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness: hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams,”

~ Katherine S. White, A Romp in the Garden, The New Yorker Magazine

Every winter the Nichol’s Garden Catalog arrives to tempt me into thinking it’s nearly spring. I put it under my pile of reading materials so I don’t get too excited about planting, yet. February is too early to think about the garden in Colorado, and even April is pushing it for outdoor planting. But I don’t forget about the catalog, and spend some energy just trying to ignore it.

Historian and journalist Jill Lepore writes, “There are more than two hundred mail-order seed companies in the United States, and, if you’ve ever ordered from any of them, chances are that your mail has been swollen with catalogues, their covers of radicchio red, marigold yellow, and zinnia pink peeking out from beneath the annual drab-gray crop of tax documents and the daily, dreary drizzle of bills, solicitations, and credit-card offers…

“Seed and garden catalogues sell a magical, boozy, Jack-and-the-beanstalk promise: the coming of spring, the rapture of bloom, the fleshy, wet, watermelon-and-lemon tang of summer. Trade your last cow for a handful of beans to grow a beanstalk as high as the sky. They make strangely compelling reading, like a village mystery or the back of a cereal box. Also, you can buy seeds from them.”

Seed catalogs are relatively new. Lepore explains, “Printed seed catalogues date to about the middle of the eighteenth century, when they really only carried imports … Seed catalogues sold seeds brought to you by the best scientists of the atomic era … Long before that, and long after that, most people got seeds by harvesting and saving them — in bottles and jars, in slips of paper, in cloth sacks, in barns and silos. You didn’t need to buy seeds for things you could grow; you needed only to harvest and set aside some seeds for the next year, or swap with neighbors. Buying seeds from books was a gentleman’s hobby … That they catered not just to farmers, who knew what they were doing, but also to a newfangled thing now called an urban gardener, is shown by the fact that these catalogues came complete with planting instructions.”

I qualify as an urban gardener, and rely heavily on the instructions on the seed package. Colorado climate can be touchy, but planting in mid-May is usually pretty safe. I’ve tried planting root crops earlier, but it often doesn’t rain much in May and setting up the sprinklers can be risky due to late freezes. (The official frost-free date is mid-May, but freezes can occur as late as early June.) Of course, if I wait too late, it can get too hot and dry for good growth before the veggies appear. Gardening is, after all, just a gamble with nature.

LePore continues, “In 1900, nearly two in five Americans lived on farms and three in five lived in the country. Most people knew how to grow things. (Less than two per cent of Americans now work on farms; the biggest decline has been in the population of Black farmers, from nearly a million a century ago down to fewer than fifty thousand.)”

Planting and growing your own food, or food to sell, is now less a personal activity than a corporate one. However, there’s usually some old woman or guy in your neighborhood who grows the most fantastic garden. Neighbors stare in admiration as they pass those yards, and a lucky few may receive some of the garden bounty or occasionally, some saved, rare seeds as a gift.

Most of us are, however, lucky enough if we can grow a squash or lettuce or even a tomato for our own table, much less to share. In our garden, greens seem to do well, along with carrots, peas and green beans. I’m not always patient enough to wait for the winter squash to ripen, and the cucumbers seem to take forever to get big enough to pick.

Over the years I have observed cycles in what flourishes and what seems retarded. Learning my lesson one year, I then plant the more successful seeds the next, and ignore the ones that were disappointing. But, nature isn’t that reliable and seeds can be fickle. My huge success from one year may be the big disappointment the next, and vice versa.

So each year I read the catalogs and analyze my tastes and try to predict what the weather will do over the next six months or so. Then, I carefully order the seeds with the most potential for a successful garden. I will break open the compost pile and top dress the beds before planting, and set up the sprinklers (to be adjusted based on rainfall).

At that point, I roll the dice and hope I get a good roll — then just wait and see.

Additional information:

Jill Lepore, Pay Dirt, What We Learn from Leafing Through Seed Catalogues, March 13, 2023, Onward and Upward in the Garden, The New Yorker Magazine

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