Seed Catalogs: A Gardener's Muse


Photo by stevendepolo/FlickrCC

I'm a sucker for catalogs. I'll pick up the mail and flip through Patagonia on the way up the stairs; I'll spread Sur La Table across the counter while my breakfast is toasting. Sporty style and a gourmet kitchen, in full glossy color. Look!

But so many pages of outerwear and cookware, with their absurd sales pitches, cannot compare with catalogs of seeds. Never mind fleece in shades of cantaloupe or eggplant; you can grow the fruits and vegetables themselves. Over the holidays, I canceled or recycled all of our catalogs but two, which I took with me on trips home and other visits. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange features neat drawings (like gnomes schlepping peppers) throughout its alphabetical listings of everything from artichokes to watermelon. And Seed Savers Exchange displays vibrant, mouth-watering photos of corn, tomatoes, and dozens of other crops. Beautiful, bountiful harvests, only months away! I thumbed through feeling hungry and hopeful. Both Southern Exposure, a cooperative, and Seed Savers, a nonprofit, promote biodiversity and heirloom varieties and proscribe genetic engineering.

We'd grow for the cafeteria, focusing on spring and fall crops, and hope that students would visit.

Unfortunately, I had no land. I'd just spent the summer and fall on a farm in central Virginia, and back in Washington, D.C., I was looking for places to grow food. The tiny, probably contaminated plot in front of my row house? A community garden, with its ages-long waiting list? An empty lot on N Street? Nothing was too promising.

Then, in late December, I forwarded my boyfriend, Daniel, a Washington Post article on area schools' greening projects, including the efforts of the Bullis School, which he had attended, to serve locally produced food. He emailed the school expressing interest, and two weeks later we were there, with the business officer and head of school, making plans for a vegetable garden. They already had four raised growing beds, each 50 feet long, for teachers, and we could use two. Also—land!—the school could fence in a 250-square-foot plot. We'd grow for the cafeteria, focusing on spring and fall crops, and hope that students would visit. Not quite the Edible Schoolyard, but maybe something like it.

And so I started ogling seeds with purpose. One Monday, Daniel and I took over a bookstore table, strewing it with catalogs and seeding schedules. We considered weather and timing (Washington isn't quite "coast" or "inland plains") and carefully drew maps of our garden beds and plot, to scale. We grouped plant families together, so in future seasons we or others could try to manage pests, diseases, and soil fertility through crop rotations. As the hours rolled by, we kept consulting that trusty manual, The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman.

We paged through the catalogs again and again. Carwile's Virginia Peanuts, it turned out, had been given by a traveler to an eight-year-old boy around 1910. St. Valery carrots, sweet and tender, dated back to 1880s France. Black Mexican corn was derived from an Iroquois variety. And the tomatoes—oh, the tomatoes. The pages of delicious descriptions were so tempting that in order to keep from getting overwhelmed or carried away, I had to stop. Close the catalog. Take a deep breath. OK. No more than four large varieties and two cherries. When we flipped through again, we picked, among others, my beloved Brandywine and the irresistibly curious Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. Southern Exposure described the legend of a 1930s West Virginia radiator repairman, M.C. Byles, with four big old tomato varieties and a baby's ear syringe, patiently cross-pollinating.

We proposed our list to the food-service manager at Bullis, who said she could use just about everything except summer squash and kale. Really, kids, no kale? Not even the First Lady's favorite, delicious Lacinato? Apparently not. Still, we'll grow some of our crops in novelty quantities, to get students' attention. The peanuts, for example, and soybeans (Daniel wants to make soy milk). And marvelous fractal Romanesco broccoli. And horned melons. No tobacco or cannabis. But artichokes.

The seeds are in the mail, and I'm eagerly awaiting them. In the next few weeks—if it stops snowing—we'll direct seed some crops. Others we'll let germinate in black plastic flats, under florescent grow lights on the third floor of the school's administration building. By May, with any luck, the cafeteria's salad bar will look as luscious as the catalogs.