Like many Mainers, each day I trudge out to the mailbox to see what exciting new bills have arrived. Most days an equal amount of catalogs and sales flyers provide me with some excellent fire-starting material, but last week, despite crusty snow on the ground and nighttime temperatures close to zero, I opened up the box to find a fistful of seed catalogs.
Along with my many other quirks I am a big fan of gardening, particularly off-the-stem vegetables and colorful flowers. I like nothing better than to stroll around the house nibbling on cherry tomatoes, yellow beans, cucumbers and radishes. And, I surround myself with bright, cheery flowers such as marigolds, sunflowers and morning glories, among others. I am not a rabid gardener by any means, but much prefer the “plant and grow” varieties that require nothing more than occasional watering. I don’t live in the garden the way some people do, I just pass through and enjoy the tastes and colors it provides.
It is amazing how complicated gardening can be if one chooses to delve into the art and science of growing things. Some of my catalogs are nearly 200 pages including everything from rare, unusual vegetables to pumpkins and squash, gardening tools, mini greenhouses, bird repellants and all sorts of seeding, harvesting and packaging equipment. I worked on a farm for several years and got to know the business end of things long ago. Now I am more interested in seeing what’s germinating, blooming or growing on any given day and don’t care much about efficiency, husbandry or profit.
Last year I went hog wild with marigolds after I found a variety that includes orange, yellow and tiger-striped blooms all in one packet of seeds. I lined my dooryard with them, put them in pots on the porch railings and even surrounded my vegetable garden with them – two rows deep. From July through November my yard looked like a carnival had come to town. Mixed in were double rows of dwarf sunflowers in a variety of colors and morning glories that ranged from pure white to dark purple. It was like being in Candy Land! My morning walkabouts were filled with color, with hummingbirds, honey bees and bumble bees adding some life to the picture.
Speaking of pictures, I make sure I take plenty of images to use as screen savers over the cold, plain winter. It’s amazing to look out a frosty window to see only grays, blacks and whites but then see the river of color that was there all summer. It is so much easier to endure winter’s cold, snowy days knowing that my next order of summer seeds is on the way.
I’m not much for canning or preserving so I only plant packets of such things as cucumbers, squash, beans and peas. Two or three plants of each will give me all the fresh summer vegetables I want, and most often I’ll just pick a few things in passing and eat them for a snack while having tea on the back deck.
The only real “farming” I do is planting several rows of yellow eye beans for baking. They pretty much take care of themselves all summer and you can leave them in their pods till September or even October – they merely dry up, which is exactly what you want. Some cool fall Sunday I’ll dredge up enough ambition to harvest the crop, which generally produces enough beans to get me through the winter. Store-bought beans are cheap enough but it’s just the idea of growing one’s own food that makes gardening so appealing.
Many years ago I became involved in commercial gardening and decided it was too much work (making tomato sauce was the pits!), but I admire the folks who spend so much time growing, harvesting and canning their produce. I cringe every time I have to pay $7 for a jar of “organic” pickles, but then I remind myself that it’s still much cheaper than doing it myself. After all, I spend nearly every day of harvest time in the woods chasing one critter or another and prefer a freezer full of wild game to a thousand jars of zucchini relish, but to each his own!
One thing I have discovered over the years is that even though it is more expensive to order seeds from catalogs the odds for success are much better than going cheap and buying packets from department stores. In fact, last year I had to replant several times when the “cheap” vegetable and flower seeds I picked up at random failed to germinate. It’s hard to imagine a seed that won’t grow but it can happen. Now I order quality seeds from long-time producers and never have a problem getting things to grow. Our window of “summer” here in Maine is short enough as it is, but to have a crop failure early on can be a real disaster.
The one concession I make to commercialism is to buy a couple of big, fat, “flowerdy” hanging plants so I can keep the hummingbirds happy all summer. Being thrifty, I wait till the price goes down by half, which means I don’t get them out till mid-summer. The hummers don’t seem to care. By then I have plenty of morning glories for them to sip on, not to mention the several nectar pots I have hanging all over the yard.
I have learned over the years to avoid over-ordering seeds. For my needs a packet or two will provide all the plants I have room for. I do go overboard with sunflowers and marigolds but even then a few hundred of each will suffice. I’m often tempted to buy seeds by the pound but, truthfully, there is just no room for hundreds of thousands of plants in my yard. A palmful of marigolds will produce 300 to 400 marigold plants, big, full and dripping with blooms. It takes a bit of planning to figure out where all those flowers are going to go.
One good thing about marigolds is that if you over-plant you can always eat the excess!