If it wasn’t already clear, I’m now going to introduce myself as a huge jerk.
During this cold, wet and gray transition between winter and spring, one of my favorite things to do is… browse through seed catalogs.
Yes, I like to read about vegetables. And fruit. And flowers. But it’s mostly vegetables.
And it helps. Maybe that would help you too.
A signal that the season is changing
The worst part of winter, in my opinion, is when the season ends in March (and sometimes early April). Everything is gray and beige, stained with salt and with holes. The snow is gone (usually), but the earth is just beginning to stir.
Thus, the arrival of a seed catalog is like seeing the top of a crocus pierce the ground. It’s a sign that, yes, the season is really changing.
Flipping through a seed catalog is a virtual stroll through the verdant, ripe shades of spring and summer. There is a certain quiet, meditative quality to this act. Open the catalog. Flip through a few pages. Study the differences between the varieties of green bees. Take a sip of tea. Turn a few more pages. Imagine the sweet acidity of all those juicy tomatoes. Turn a few more pages. Gawk to all sunflowers. Go back. Study. Go back. Sip. Go back. Study.
All kinds of shapes, sizes and colors
Modern agriculture is super productive. Its products are also, in a way, often remarkably boring. Walk into a supermarket and you’ll receive a bounty that would have been almost unbelievable to people just a few generations ago. But one of the trade-offs for this abundance is that everything in the store has to fit neatly into a box, literal or figurative.
Apples are a good example. How many varieties are there usually in a supermarket produce section. Maybe six? Seven or eight if you’re lucky? Yet there is a whole world of different and strange apples.
And it’s not just apples! I am continually delighted by the wide variety of all kinds of commodities that are represented in most seed catalogs. Even the Burpee catalog—more a record of modern hybrids than ancient heirlooms—has a remarkable range of options. Earlier, I randomly opened this catalog on the potatoes page – and it includes six different types of sweet potatoes, ranging from garnet to orange to white!
Choosing from these varied options is an expansion of the mind. Who knew there were so many varieties of carrots? And there are yellow cucumbers! And orange-fleshed watermelons! And a rainbow of peppers, hot and sweet! And the tomatoes. Tomatoes. You could spend days studying all the varieties of tomatoes, the different colors, shapes, uses, names, origins, and stories.
This enchanting strain is a testament to the beauty and weirdness of the natural world – and a monument to human ingenuity. Many of these varieties did not simply come into being. They have been carefully bred and coaxed into their current form by generations of people, dating back thousands of years. that there is literally pages of different kinds of corn is a modern tribute to how the people of Central America 10,000 years ago pulled off one of the greatest feats of biological engineering in world history, transforming what was essentially grass into an agricultural base for civilizations.
So if all this variety exists, we should take advantage of it and help maintain it. That’s why I’m a big fan of growing at least one or two unusual varieties in the garden every summer. One year it was Mexican sour pickles from the Hudson Valley Seed Company (they almost took over one of the garden boxes). Another year it was sunchocola cherry tomato (one of my favorites now). Last year it was lemon cukes (pretty good!). This year I’m trying the not hot habanero – habanada (get it) – and Badger Flame beets from this new Row 7 Seed Company.
Hope for the future
At some fundamental level, what seed catalogs really sell is a chance to be optimistic. I can order these seeds from a distant location, put them in the soil in my garden, grow the plants, and then eat the produce. A lot of things have to work out for this tomato to end up on my plate. Taking a chance is an act of optimism.
And that’s one of the things I really enjoy about gardening. It forces you to plan ahead, to nurture something outside of yourself, to have hope for the future. The world could use more of all these practices.
He could also use more backyard tomatoes, whatever the type. Because knowing that you grew this tomato yourself will make it even sweeter.
grow up for it
If you think you’d like to grow something this year, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t even necessarily require a garden. You can start a few seeds in paper cups on the windowsill. Hardware stores, garden stores, and even places like Honest Weight currently carry all kinds of seeds, as well as bags of starting soil. (Honest Weight has plenty of heirloom seeds.) Seeds are cheap. Most packets cost no more than $2 or $3 – and you’ll often be able to use the seeds for several years.
Flowers and herbs are a good choice as you can plant many varieties in pots (check the seed packet). A handful of marigold seeds will germinate quickly in a sunny window. Transplanted in a pot, they will bloom practically all summer.
But you can also grow tomatoes and other vegetables in one of those five-gallon buckets from the hardware store. One year I even grew a few tomato plants upside down.
Of course, having a garden space will help you diversify. If you don’t have a spot where you live, you might consider marking a plot in one of Capital Roots’ many community gardens (don’t wait to sign up). Also keep an eye out for courses offered by the organization.
And if you prefer to buy seedlings, that’s fine too. Many places will sell them a bit later in the spring. If you’re looking for good plants at a good price, a bunch of local organizations have plant sales in May – this link is last year’s list, which we’ll update as May approaches.
Greg Dahlmann is one of AOA’s editors.