RICHMOND >> Reading garden and seed catalogues while the dog is still slipping on the ice-covered driveway is both a matter of hope and risk. Nothing creates optimism like thinking about fresh green beans or bountiful, crisp lettuce when the reality is wind and coyotes howling.

Every year the catalogues get slicker, the pictures better, the spiel more tantalizing. And now and then, somewhat spellbound, you end up ordering a black iris, or the seeds that will guarantee the best pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, or a new gidget. One year, for instance, it was snake repellent that arrived here in a large white plastic container.

Snakes — mostly garter, occasionally milk — would appear on the patio, warming their slinky bodies on the sun-heated stones. They were harmless, we knew that, but they made us jump, especially when they decided to be right in the middle of the steps where a foot was about to land.

We broadcast the stuff, supposedly harmless to pets, and kept the pet away because we are never sure that animal lovers are writing the texts and the labels. The Federal Drug Administration probably doesn't do much in the way of side effects of chemicals on animals, although the Department of Agriculture must make some rules for the labeling.


The snakes paid the powder no mind. They brought their infants out from under stacked stone steps, they lolled in the sun, they slithered off with alacrity when a human appeared, they shed their skins on the lawn. The large white plastic container languishes in the garage because we don't know if it can go in the regular trash.

This year, after several years of using red plastic under tomato plants, the catalogues pictured little trays that would slide under the plant and do the magic red thing, reflecting the sun's rays right into the plant and making the produce ripen faster. We knew the plastic worked, laid out on either side of the plants and held down with the stones that are the best crop in this garden.

Not making a big plunge, we ordered a six-pack. It's early days with this experiment, but the trays may not be the best thing since Pittsfield seeded rye. They seemed thin, which turned out to be a problem later. But the first clue came with transplanting tomatoes from their greenhouse pots into the ground. Ours, raised by a friend, were a sturdy bunch, and it was hard not to cause damage during the struggle to slide them through a thin slit to the hole in the middle. It was a relief when the six plants took hold and looked as healthy as the ones without trays.

Then came last week's chill — which most of the tomatoes ignored — and the gusty, persistent winds. Gardens don't like high winds and hard rains. Some peonies flopped over, and a couple of bearded iris lost their balance. Most of the vegetables stood tall, but two of the little red trays flipped.

One plant was easily rescued, but the other was twisted under a red tray. Once eased out of its collar, it listed — and it had already produced two blossoms. It will no longer have a tray. And during the rescue, another flaw appeared. It will be tough to drive stakes — the house Special Scissors for Plastic may be needed for pruning the red gidgets.

They won't be reordered. But another temptation will be there next year, with art work that appeals to anyone with a garden under snow and ice.

Ruth Bass weeds flowers and vegetables in Richmond. Her web site is