Counting Flowers on the Wall

It’s that time of year, again. Not winter or the holidays. I’m not talking about dates on the calendar or weather events. I’m talking about seed and plant catalogs. Yes, that time of year.

Plantsmen know their customer base. It’s zero degrees outside, snow on the ground, freezing wind, and the sun is out maybe 8 hours per day, if you’re lucky. This is precisely the time of year to start sending out catalogs and emails to the shivering hordes of depressed gardeners, whether experienced or neophyte, expert or enthusiastic amateur. Under that snow is dirt. We can see it, if only in our minds, and it’s filled with lovely worms, calling us, spring’s silent, slimy sirens.






Full color catalogs, pictures on every page–breathless copy proclaiming this rare heirloom pepper is perfect for my exact climate, lush tomatoes sprawled across the centerfold, scarlet fruit practically throbbing among unbelievably verdant foliage. Last week, I got a come on from my favorite rose breeder, and the fact that I have a favorite rose breeder, that I can write that without laughing, is a measure of my illness.

roald dahl
Roald Dahl, by David Austin Roses

I want all the roses, pink and white and apricot and cream. All the eggplants, purple and white and streaked, long or fat or round. Tomatoes? Yes, please. Herbs? Of course! And I absolutely need a couple of grapevines, an olive tree, another tea plant, a dozen peonies, oooh, greater disease resistance? Make that two dozen peonies, and some irises, anemones, perhaps early crocus, to herald in the spring.

I will make lists upon lists, draw diagrams of the yard space I have available, map out what can go where. Is that corner shady? Where do we get full sun for the whole day? Does this fence block cold drafts? What about trellises, obelisks, and other structures? Raised beds and paths, or au naturel? Woodland or English? Bricks or pea gravel or cedar chips? Shrubs or climbers?

It may be sleeting outside, ice dripping off the eaves, with me cuddled under a throw with a cup of hot tea or coffee and a couple of cats, but there is a stack of Post-it notes to my left, pens to my right, and catalogs sliding off my lap, every page flagged, dog-eared, and annotated. Inevitably, I will “narrow it down” to just far too much, none of it set to arrive for months (the appropriate time for my zone, in seed-speak), and by the time the seeds and plants and bulbs and rhizomes start arriving I will have a million other tasks to do, and finding shovel time—and shovel energy!—will drive me to tears, but now, with the promise of spring, summer, and fall still safely in the daydreamed future, I can circle a newly discovered strain of corn guaranteed to produce sweet ears even in the maritime Northwest and fantasize about finally growing zucchini and melons vertically, on the sturdy trellis that I am completely unqualified to build.

Who doesn’t want to grow their own wasabi?

Courtesy of Territorial Seed Company

There is no end to the enticements offered by plant breeders and sellers. Who isn’t tempted by the rounded pink shoulders of early radishes, sharp and peppery; the musky aroma of summer melons; creamy fall potatoes mashed with garlic? They seduce every sense, they feed our bodies, nurture and soothe. They are security against an uncertain future, hope in the face of despair, and endlessly forgiving. If snails mow down your peas before they blossom, plant more peas. Buy dry bulk peas from the grocery store and strew them recklessly, over and over, hither and thither, laughing like a maniac in your pajamas.

To be a gardener is to live in hope. Optimism flows like sap in our veins. This year I will have watermelons and garlic and blueberries. This year slugs won’t feast on the strawberries. This year the tomatoes will not succumb to any of the myriad things that tomatoes succumb to. This year…

Every year is different. What worked last year in an utter failure the next, and vice versa. You never know, you can’t predict, you can only amend the soil and hope. More compost, some lovely manure, a wish and a prayer, bite your nails and hope. (Remember to scrub the dirt out from under your nails before biting, though.)

This year I will grow all the roses. There will be roses all summer, heaped in bowls, spilling out of vases. I’ll have roses at work and at home, I will hand them out on the street to everyone I see, I will leave them on my neighbor’s porches like zucchini, and run away. This year my herb garden will provide flavor, scent, and health. My fruits and vegetables will feed the world, alleviate hunger, bring peace and goodwill to all mankind. My trellises will straddle continents, vines stretching across oceans, climbers reaching to heaven, clematis blossoms falling from the clouds.

This year.


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