Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Gardening by Mail

By Brendan Doherty

MARCH 1, 1999: 

"I have grown further and further from my muse, and closer to my post-hole digger."
--E.B. White.

Three years ago, as I worked to remove a stump and the "devil grass" in the backyard, my neighbor whacked his golf balls into a net. Dripping with sweat, I stopped to survey how much progress I had made, imagining the tasty salads, immaculate chile peppers and vine-ripened tomatoes from my newly cleared space.

"Kind of pointless, isn't it?" said my golfer neighbor over the fence.

That season, I gave him a load of red and yellow tomatoes after I had eaten more of them than I could stand. We've never talked since. I've played golf before, but I'll be happy to bet a million dollars he's never had a better tomato. I simply cannot understand golf, and he will never understand the difference between store-bought produce and a tomato-basil sandwich without bread, consumed while shoulder-high in living, fruit-bearing plants.

To be a serious gardener is to be in love with, among other things, the mail carrier. From the comfort of your home in early December through mid-February, the mail carrier is the only person who can connect the serious gardener with the signs of the future garden. You've already passed from shovel love. You've graduated from looking for the perfect gloves. You laugh at sedan-driving gardeners who call you to help truck their shit from the dairy. You've taken soil samples to the county extension to determine their acidity. You have surpassed the biological diversity contained in your friends' and neighbors' gardens, and you've taken every seed, cutting and root sample from them, but remain unsatisfied

So you're left compulsively pawing through the myriad catalogs that fill your mailbox, imagining the next year's garden layout, searching for that final tomato hybrid or heirloom that will marry perfect taste with early bloom. Order one item--one tiny packet of seeds--and one thing that you are sure to grow is catalogs.

My carrier has brought an entire sackful from around the nation and the globe: Gurney's of Yankton, S.D.; Gardener's Supply Company of Burlington, Vt.; Burpee's; and Shepherd's Seed Catalog of Connecticut. The gardening supply industry grosses $2 billion annually. I can't say all of that money came from me, though. And for the impatient, perfection-seeking gardener, these are both a godsend and a curse. Some find that they need that English spade and two-ton wheelbarrow. They can't keep their credit card away from the phone when mail-order manure, ladybugs, worms, compost activators and seed propagator heating pads are at their fingertips.

"Because you're a Spring Hill Preferred Customer, BRENDAN DOUGHERTY, we'd like to send you a very special FREE gift ... two beautiful Stella de Oro Dwarf Daylilies to plant in the DOUGHERTY GARDEN guaranteed to grow and bloom in ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO around the DOUGHERTY home."

My madness has extended only into plants. It may be hard to believe, but I grow depressed when the basil outside turns black, and I stay somber until I can pull up the garlic and turn the spade with fresh manure into the beds. Better than Christmas, better than birthdays, the garden invariably gets pieced together from the sacks of mail that come from every single catalog company on the planet. This year, I will be cursed with purple asparagus, the raspberry sampler, the Italian heirloom Caramello, Costulto Genovese and Rose de Berne Swiss tomatoes, two varieties of eggplant, broccoli, broccoli raab, two varieties of seed potato and the requisite six kinds of basil.

I relish the descriptions, which read better than travel brochures. Like Shepherd's Costulto Genovese: "These wonderful, multipurpose tomatoes have been enjoyed for many generations along the shores of the Mediterranean, where good tomatoes are a part of every meal. The unique, large, deep red fruits have a singularly fluted profile, deeply ridged and heavily lobed." Or the Exotic Botanicals of the Jungle from California, illustrated with only line drawings and written like a J. Peterman catalog for plants: "During the recent expedition into the Oaxacan sierra to visit with Zapotec Healer friends ..." and "Hottentot tribes smoke the sticky aromatic leaves and flowertops as a preferred euphoriant ..."

Who can't thumb through the descriptions of the Sheperd's Garden Seeds Catalog from Torrington, Conn., and not be entirely seduced by the descriptions? Others manage to convey that gardening is meant for an audience, rather than as a solitary pursuit or conversation ender. "My friends have never seen such a BIG sweet potato," writes Charles Grazevich of Augusta, N.J., to the Gurney's seed catalog. "It weighed in at 6 1/2 pounds and measured 12 inches long and 15 inches wide."

It took me a few growing seasons before I was comfortable with ordering seeds and live plants from a catalog. I liked going to the greenhouse. I loved the smell of the peat and the composted manure. I liked pulling the plants out of the six-packs when I already knew it was not going to frost. I knew that some of the plants there weren't as healthy as others, and I felt confident that I knew the difference between the soon-to-die disappointment of a bell pepper and a thriving plant begging to fill my larder with its succulent fruit.

But the diversity available in the hundreds of catalogs will allow gardeners to exceed the thin band of plant varieties available locally. Some tips when choosing from catalogs:

  • Select a catalog that chooses its plants well: Do you want the tomato, or the Isabella Rosellini of tomatoes?

  • Choose plants for climate zone--this isn't California.

  • Order early. If you love it and have to have it, but you wait, you lose.

  • Try the local professionals: Seeds of Change, based in Santa Fe, has brilliant collections of heirlooms.

(888) 762-7333.

Even though many things can be grown from seed, golf balls are not grown this way. Seeds are cheap, and good seeds can feed the world.

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