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Believing in the Seed Fairy

November 26, 2014

Having lately been plunged into the steely cold embrace of a Manitoba winter, today I have taken refuge indoors, feet up on an ottoman to save them from the coolness of the bare hardwood floor, ensconced in the toasty snugness of a generous chair that affords a comfortable view of the frigid gray streetscape outside. On this late November day, less than a month before Christmas, it is not visions of sugarplums that dance in my head. Warmed by a very generous cup of tea, I have been salivating over “gardeners’ porn”—the first of this year’s seed catalogues to arrive. Its glossy pages are lush with vibrant colour photos of plants dripping with flawless veggies and ablaze with spectacular blooms. Though their promise is seldom matched in the down and dirty of the backyard garden, they never fail to evoke dreams of future bounty.

Seed catalogues do far more than offer seeds for sale. On their pages I become reacquainted with old friends and am introduced to the latest varieties. I get an opportunity to consider current award winners. Their wisdom has contributed significantly to my gardening success. Each season as I pore over the latest editions I discover a wealth of valuable information including gardening tips, cultivation techniques, hardiness, preferred growing conditions and days to maturity for each plant, and even a crash course in botanical Latin. Every year brings new ideas.

Admittedly, all this information along with the terminology jungle inherent in seed catalogues can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated. But with a little perseverance the “horticulture speak” can be mastered and will become immeasurably useful in making excellent choices from the myriad of seeds, bulbs, tubers and starter plants available. Besides, learning gardeners’ argot gives a gardener street cred, kind of like wearing Carhartt overalls and wielding a Hardcore hammer while banging together a garden shed.

But seed catalogues are more than information. They are harbingers of good things to come, promises that despite appearances, spring will surely arrive. They provide an escape from the rigors of winter. Transported, I can smell richly fragrant earth, feel its moist coolness on my hands and bare feet contrasted against the warmth of spring sun on my back.

I come by my green thumb honestly. My mother was an avid gardener and I very early followed in her footsteps. My first independent endeavour was at age 4, planting a few peas and castor oil beans, lovingly cradled in horse hair, in a little patch of my own on our family farm. I progressed to growing a fair-sized garden, not long afterward begging my way into a 4H Garden Club a couple of years before I was technically eligible for membership. I studied biology at university. I completed a course in greenhouse management. I planned and oversaw the landscaping of a 17-acre housing development.

Plants…can’t get enough of them. Therefore seed catalogues are a natural fit for me. I love growing vegetables of various stripes, including a very wide variety of herbs. I approach cultivating flowers, both annual and perennial, with equal enthusiasm. I have harvested a full ton of tomatoes out of my backyard plot in a single season, and over another started thousands of plants indoors. I once tore out the entire lawn in my front yard to make room for more flowers. I love trying new and exotic varieties and have nurtured “difficult” plants with some success. I am as passionate about growing houseplants as I am about gardening and have been known to have a virtual jungle in my home.

However, having been abroad several months over each of the last few years, it’s been a while since I have been able to seriously contemplate a garden. That never curtailed my zeal for seed catalogues however. As I work at compiling my wish list, it always mushrooms beyond both my ability to manage the plants enumerated and the green in my trug. In more lucid moments I prune it to a more workable size, inevitably just a bit beyond what I planned to spend.

I am finding that quality seeds have become a bit pricey. Yet weighed against the prospect of bushels of savory vegetables and beds of stunning flowers, they are still a bargain. The price of a packet of cucumber seeds would barely buy a few cukes at the supermarket even at the height of the growing season, but the 50 or so seeds will produce incomparably flavourful additions to hundreds of summer salads. In consequence, I am willing to endure a bit of famine early in the year in order to feast later on. And that’s not to mention the feeling of being able to share the fruits of my labours with friends and neighbours.

Getting back to gardening is going to be a tough row to hoe. My new summer home has no established garden. I have, however, learned by experience that raised beds are the way to go, building them far less work than breaking virgin ground and amending soil. They are also much easier to care for and give greater returns for effort invested.

But until the frost is out of the ground and I am able to turn the earth, even after I have placed my seed orders I know I will pore over my beloved seed catalogues until they are dog-eared and marked up, finding inspiration as I anticipate a varicoloured palette of blooms and the heavenly taste of sandwiches made with huge slabs of Beefsteak tomatoes slathered with Miracle Whip.

The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.

                                                                     ~George Bernard Shaw

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