I love seed catalogs. They are what the Sears Wish Book Christmas Catalog was to me as a child. They are to me what brochures from exotic vacation spots are for some adults and pornography is for others. Seed catalogs are the chance to dream, to give in to avarice and desire. They are one of of the only times when pure old-fashioned greed is acceptable, understandable, or even charming.
But they are more than that. Seed catalogs are the heralds of spring, delivered to my door in the depths of the cold, dark winter. They are the promise of warmth and sunshine and hours of relaxation and joy spent outdoors. They are the reminder that no matter how bad it gets, eventually the winter will end and the world will turn green once more. They are the promise that you can always start over, try something new, or add some new color to your life. They are (for me at least) a small reminder that God made a covenant to never abandon us if we would just be nice to each other and tend to his Garden. I know it probably sounds hokey, but seed catalogs inspire a kind of lust in me, but simultaneously remind me to be a better, more generous and thankful person. That’s a lot to get out of one catalog, and so its no wonder I love them so much and never stop with just one.
I know a lot of people around the US have already ordered their seeds, unpacked them, and are starting the first of them inside right now. In Alaska, by necessity, we do things a little differently. Since we really aren’t guaranteed decent planting conditions more-or-less free of frost until mid-May (and even then you are vulnerable to the odd cold-snap that turns all your tender plants black overnight), we start later in the year. This means unless I want to drive myself crazy or make the mistake of giving in to optimism by starting plants indoors too early, I don’t even look at my seed catalogs until mid-January. This year I’ve been busy with projects around the house, so I’m getting an even later start.
I have a ritual with my seed catalogs. First, I gather them from my favorite organic seed merchants around the country. I automatically get catalogs from certain vendors because I buy from them every year. I appreciate this service, and it makes me more likely to continue purchasing from them in the future. I also like to explore new providers and perhaps take a look at their catalogs. Since I’m a techie, this involves me going on to a lot of websites, looking at the type of seeds they carry, and deciding if it is worth requesting a catalog. This techie bent of mine in no way means I will do my seed-voyerism with an electronic catalog or website. To do this thing right, I’m gonna need paper.
To get onto my catalog list you have to do one of the following:
- Carry unique or hard-to-find seeds my usual trusted vendors don’t;
- Carry seeds for plants I typically like to grow, but at a good savings over my usual vendors;
- Carry enough variety that I am likely to place an order large enough to justify the shipping;
- Ship to Alaska, without treating me or charging me like you’re shipping to a third-world country instead of the 49th of 50 US states;
- Carry seeds for that one plant type I’ve been looking for everywhere and just can’t find.
- Have a social conscience and support the work of real family farmers over that of massive industrialized agriculture;
- Not offer genetically modified (GMO) seeds;
- Be of historical, botanical, or horticultural significance;
- Have a compelling story that makes me want to know more;
- Have a catalog that is at least partially an educational tool instead of just a sales tool;
- Have a strikingly beautiful catalog with good illustrations or photography.
In my household, most of my seed catalogs arrive in mid-December. Even though I don’t read them until January, I appreciate this early arrival as it gives me the chance to extend the anticipation even more. But it also gives me the very practical chance to see if duplicates have arrived and distribute them to friends and family with their Christmas gifts. Why should I have all the fun?
At some point in January, usually after the Christmas decorations have been put away for another year and the New Years resolutions have been stretched to their breaking points, I select a quiet and cold weekend and begin my garden planning for the year. I pour myself a good cup of coffee (shifting to hot tea later in this marathon of a day), spread my catalogs all around me, grab my laptop (I use Excel to track the seeds I want to order, what catalogs they come from, and where on my garden map to plant them – I told you I was a techie), and let the colors and dreams of a bountiful harvest wash over me. For me, this is bliss. Not only do I enjoy looking at and dreaming of all the things I will plant, but I get a kind of voyeuristic thrill out of looking at all the fun things grown by other people who live in warmer climates with longer summers.
This perusal can take me a full day, or a full weekend if I do it right. And believe me, I do like to take my time. I read descriptions. I drool over pictures, drawings, watercolors, and sketches. I analyze climate and daylight requirements, growth periods, time tables, etc. I cross-reference other catalogs to see if they carry the same plants and have similar requirements listed and pictures provided (you’d be surprised at some of the errors I have found over the years, but it’s to be expected when putting together a book with that many entries). I make notes, notes, and more notes. I dream big, and just like I did with the Sears catalog as a child at Christmas, I dog-ear pages and want far more than my means and my room to play will accommodate.
When the orgy of exploration subsides, I am usually left with the selection of enough seed varieties to fill about 3 acres. Since I live on a slightly smallish city lot, this means that I now have to start making some tough choices. I know that I want to grow cabbage, but do I really need 6 kinds, in addition to the brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, and chard? Am I really going to tie up a garden bed again with the vain attempt to grow tomatoes outdoors in a place that just isn’t in the least bit friendly to the idea? How many carrots, and kinds of carrots, can two people really eat? Speaking of which, can I get my better half to eat half of the things I want to grow? Do I even want to eat it, or is it just to see what the plant looks like and how it behaves? These questions, in late January or early February, are the kind that keep me awake at night doing garden-box-geometry problems in my head so I can squeeze out just enough room to stash that new variety I know I won’t be able to resist.
Only after I have asked myself the hard questions and settled on answers I can live with will I place my orders. It is a joyous moment, but it carries with it a sense of finality as well. There is always that hint of mourning what might have been, even as I look forward to the coming of spring and planting of all these wonderful new treasures.
And what about all of the objects of my desire who didn’t make the cut?
Well, there is always next year.
- Seed Jargon (inandaroundthegarden.net)
- Seeds of Change? (openviewgardens.com)
- Seed Catalogs and Church Planting (maryharristodd.wordpress.com)
- Seed Catalog Time – An Annual Ritual of Avarice and Glee (alaskakitchenandgarden.wordpress.com)