Today’s mail hit the table with a thud, and there it was amidst the Christmas sale fliers, bills and donation requests: the first vegetable seed catalog of the season. Now this may seem like a pretty banal event to most people, but for me it’s a treasure, the start of my annual shot at redemption, a way to feel the warmth of summer even as the sleet hits the roof over my head. I seized the catalog like a photo album of treasured friends I haven’t seen for a year, and began flipping through the pages. Such extravagant variety, springing forth from the random gene-swaps of nature or the careful hand of the plant breeder.
Just the names give me a thrill. Tomatoes: Orange Oxheart. Mortgage Lifter. Green Zebra. Black Sea Man. Sweet ‘n Neat Scarlet Imp. How could a person resist? The pole beans: Rattlesnake, Neckargold, Purple Trionfo Violetto. And then there’s the vivid colors and shapes, of the sunburst pattypan, scalloped and bright yellow with a flash of deep green around the stem; of the Carnival winter squash, like a piece of painted porcelain, of the bright orange sungold and deep red-purple Chocolate Cherry tomatoes dense on their fragrant vines. Who needs flowers?
Of course I can’t just order seeds for my garden from the first catalog that arrives. That would be sacrilege. My obsession is such that I must flip back and forth through a dozen catalogs, listing prices, charting attributes, reviewing notes on performance from our own garden, ranking and weighing the different varieties on offer before finally purchasing the most appealing ones, often from five or six different suppliers. There are always a few ‘old stand-bys’, the reliable ones that we’ll plant every year. But I also can’t help but succumb to my curiosity and fascination with varieties I’ve never tried, the siren song of the catalog: “Gigantic beefsteak type fruits that have achieved the perfect combination of delicious flesh, awe-inspiring size and exceptional taste.” Hyperbole? Maybe, probably. I’m one of those suckers born every day.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not the loveliness of the garden vegetable that has me absolutely hooked; it’s not the curiosity about what that purple potato will look like when it’s finally unearthed, or how that green zebra tomato will taste when I bite into the first ripe one, warmed from the sun…though all of those things call to me. What brings me back to the garden year after year, trite as it sounds, is the marvel of that quiescent little seed, self-contained and self-starting, with everything it needs but the water and the warmth; and most of all, the feeling of redemption that one can enjoy every single year in planning and planting the next summer’s garden. With each new season, all sins and errors of the past gardening season are erased, all omissions corrected, and we start anew. There’s nothing better than that.