Eye Candy, Hand Heavy

Caution when opening.  Once you go in, you’re not coming out for a long time.

The first sentence of the Whole Seed Catalog says, “It’s hard to believe that this is our 18th seed catalog….”  Perhaps that is hard for them, but it’s harder for me to believe that this catalog has been out there for 18 years and that I have completely missed it.  OK, let me cut myself a little slack.  My son is 17 years old and daughter 14 (now that’s hard to believe!), and so that means professionally I have been diverting some of my energies from scouring the world-at-large and keeping up with all the latest garden developments to, more or less in succession, changing diapers, making food, arranging play dates, packing snacks, building Lego towers, making more food, tinkering in the basement and doing kitchen-chemistry experiments, being homework helper and, not the least, driving the kids to school, said play dates, science museums, sports, and, lately, the mall.  Lots of great memories and lots of great bonding there, and as a New Hampshire farmer friend of mine used to say, “It’s better for the world to raise a good child than a good carrot.” Now, though, I can confidently say that the intensities of the young-child years are behind me (I hope), and I feel like I am able to broaden my perspective a bit.  What’s that old Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the master appears?”  Well, just as I am having a bit more time to look about, up pops an eighteen-year-old seed catalog that is right up my alley.

First off, this is no mere seed catalog – it’s a seed tome.  It’s thick, substantial, has heft in the hand.  Plus, instead of being free or a nominal cost, like most seed catalogs, it weighs in at $7.95.  Truth be told, I did discover this catalog last year but ignored it for a time due to sticker shock.  Finally, when I dove in and browsed it a bit, I was hooked, pulled out my wallet, and handed over the nearly 8 bucks.  I knew this was a catalog whose wisdom has to be absorbed in the proper location….like near the throne….rather than through glances while waiting in the supermarket line. (Portland aside: Thankfully we have a supermarket chain, New Seasons, that features things like beefy seed catalogs in the checkout line, allowing one to meditate on subjects other than the latest celebrity divorce rumor and/or update on Bruce Jenner’s plastic surgery!)

I ordered these peppers.  Couldn’t resist a unique shape.  One critique of the catalog: Violet Sparkle’s description is perhaps the only one in the entire book which actually is anywhere close to its photo.  Great seeds, guys; now let’s get with the layout!

So anyway, why am I nuts about this thing? For one, gorgeous pictures.  We humans are primarily visual creatures, and as a gardener, though I value good taste, I am still victim to this hardwired bent toward sight.  Page after page of enticing photos make for a very satisfying imaginative romp through the garden-that-may-come-to-pass-this-year.  But that alone doesn’t distinguish it from some other competitors, who also effectively pander garden eye-candy to us hapless and desperate gardeners-in-winter.  What really seals the deal is that the photos, (and accompanying descriptions) are of the most wondrous selection of crops from every corner of the earth AND all open-pollinated to boot.  No forceps-wielding, anonymous technician has violated the ancient compact between plant and wind or insect.  No corporate hybridizer has shiftily moved pollen and then claimed some proprietary restrictions on the future saving of seed.  No, no.  All these plants are of the people, a potentially one-time investment, whereby ongoing seed saving is the prerogative of and, hopefully, the joy of the purchaser.  It quickly becomes clear that your $7.95 funds a mission-driven enterprise that safeguards agricultural treasures, and, through its exploratory arm, supports the discovery and sharing of seeds between cultures.  That’s worth my money!

I am quite sure that you will find in these pages varieties of vegetables that seem so different from the typical offerings in the modern grocery store that one might believe they came from some unlikely garden on the Moon or Mars. That alone merits hours of perusal, wondering at the amazing forms our food can take and at the stories that accompany each crop. I recently sent in my seed order and was astonished that I got away with spending only $100, given that I wanted to try almost everything I read about.  Fortunately over the years I have developed some sense of restraint and discipline, and, having become finally aware of this wonderful eighteen-year-old company, I trust that much of this material will still be available next year.

Rather funereal-looking seed packets for something so colorful as storied heirloom seeds.

Get this catalog, and you will feel your gardener’s mind extend backwards, beyond the present standardization of food, to a time rich with diversity and with particularity.  Through its pages your mind will wander to distant corners of the globe and meet people who have been shepherding and improving some amazing strain of corn or bean or melon.  Your imagination will roam and expand, but eventually you will have to put it down because your hands will tire as the thing is so darn heavy!  Not to worry.  You will pick it up again soon, I promise.