While the snow on the ground and the shivery temperatures shriek January, Sheepers, Burpee, and Park whisper that spring is just around the bend. I’m ‘round the bend too because I’m already tasting those first sugar snap peas, climbing up the trellis that is perfectly bare.
Gardeners the world around recognize this particular delusion: winter madness occasioned by the arrival of the seed catalogues. When the Christmas decorations are stowed safely in the attic -- well, almost -- what else is there to look forward to but the sweet taste of succulent leaf lettuce?
This year, I’m tempted to buy seeds of Lolla Rossa loose-leaf, described as having "wild frilliness and dramatic deep color." A close second is Outredgeous romaine because what’s not to like about "sword-shaped, ruffle-edged, glossy garnet-red leaves"? In third place in the salad bowl of seed descriptions is Really Red Deer-Tongue butterhead which has "smooth, arrow-shaped, long, pointed leaves in rich, dark wine-red with contrasting white midribs." With these kinds of lettuce scampering over my not-so-red tongue, how can the garden season fail to excite?
I’m convinced that folks who write copy for seed catalogues are brothers and sisters in words to those creative paint specialists who name colors for Sherwin Williams et al. Words do paint pictures in our heads, and what better picture than "vermillion-red jewels about 2" in length -- served on baguette slices spread with sweet butter"? That might make me like radishes, especially ones called Flamboyant French Breakfast radishes.
In addition to painting pictures and making my mouth water, seed catalogues are also treasure troves of historical information. I never heard of cardoons until they were a basket item on the popular food show, "Chopped."
In John Sheepers’ Kitchen Garden Seed catalogue, I learned that cardoons are a treasured Italian heirloom vegetable closely related to artichokes, but easier to grow. I also learned that broccoli has been enjoyed in Europe since the Roman Empire; but has only been widely eaten in the U.S since the 1920s. While my son loves the language of ancient Rome and wandering around the Forum, I don’t think the Roman connection will ever get him to eat his broccoli.
The most helpful information I find in seed catalogs is what conditions the plants need to flourish. Seedsmen also list the number of days to maturity and these numbers are crucial to planning a bountiful garden where succession plantings of various crops insure the best utilization of limited space. It’s a delicate balancing act to assure regular harvests of healthy food.
I do very well with my early snap peas and leaf lettuce; but there are gaps until the cucumbers and tomatoes are ripe. And we all know too well about the overabundance of zucchini, don’t we? That problem is easily solved for me because I have a killer recipe for zucchini chocolate cake. However the great kohlrabi harvest of ‘88 coupled with our limited knowledge of tasty kohlrabi recipes caused us never to buy a packet of kohlrabi seeds again! In fact, we don’t even buy it at the farmers’ market, so great is our dislike for the pale green bulb.
In most cases, our small kitchen garden provides for our basic salad needs as well as generous servings of beans and a continuous supply of herbs and garlic to spice up our cooking. And it all begins on a frigid January day when I’m paging through the seed catalogues, making my choices, and dreaming of spring.
Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.